Author Archive: Jen Kinney

Meet the New Immigrants Reviving a Philadelphia Neighborhood

Half a dozen children bounce on a trampoline on the cramped front lawn of a Northeast Philadelphia rowhome, a big sister in a hijab keeping watch from the front steps. “Mohammed,” giggles a toddler, “take off your zapatos if you want to jump on the trampoline.”

The next block over, a mother pulls her son by the arm up the steps to their own, identical rowhome. He struggles against her grip and shouts sulkingly to three girls at the bottom of the stairs, “You’re black too, you know.” One of the girls — all of them are African-American — around the age of 10, calls back coolly, “At least we’re not Indian.”

Behind the neat facades of brick rowhomes marching block by block across Oxford Circle, a neighborhood is changing. Another block over, a woman stands on the steps of her home of 26 years and points across the street. Until just a few years ago, she says, that house and that house and that house, nearly all of them, were inhabited by white, mostly Irish-Catholic, Philadelphia natives like herself. Many were senior citizens. As they’ve passed away, new families have moved in from far further afield: Bangladesh, Syria, the Dominican Republic. The ice cream man is Palestinian, she says. He’s the one who taught her about Islamic restrictions on touching dogs, when she wondered why the neighborhood kids sometimes rushed to pet hers and other times shied away. “So I’m learning,” she says.

In a neighborhood where the number of foreign-born families has increased dramatically over the past two decades, everyone has a lot to learn. Since reaching its lowest point in a century in 2006, Philadelphia’s population has been steadily growing. But contrary to popular perception, the people driving that change aren’t upwardly mobile, white millennials snapping up the new cookie-cutter condos downtown. The vast majority of Philadelphia’s population growth is occurring in outlying “middle neighborhoods” — places that fall in the middle of the spectrum for incomes and housing prices, experiencing neither gentrification and displacement, nor shrinkage and stagnation, data compiled by Reinvestment Fund in partnership with Next City shows (full data set available in a brief by Reinvestment Fund here).

There are 138 census tracts in Philadelphia that meet this description. Forty-one percent of the city’s population lives in one, including a majority of the city’s immigrants. In 25 of these “middle neighborhood” tracts, more than a quarter of residents were born outside the U.S. In the city as a whole, just 13 percent were. While Philadelphia’s population overall grew by 2 percent between 2000 and 2015, and all middle markets grew by 5 percent, the population in these areas grew by 15 percent. That means in these 25 census tracts, the majority clustered in the Northeast, the number of immigrants increased from 26,942 in 2000 to 48,623 in 2015, a leap of 80 percent.

Around downtown, the picture of growth and development has been of new, wealthy, white faces pushing out brown and black residents. In these neighborhoods, another dynamic is at play: Refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented, are replacing an aging white population, bringing with them new foods, new customs, new expectations for their futures. As they do, education needs are changing — both for the surge in young people, and for their parents, who are often also learning a new language, adapting to local customs and seeking work. Many have come in hopes of a better education for their children and themselves, and ended up in a city with an under-resourced, overcrowded school system. Now they, the schools and a host of social service agencies are trying to fill the gaps.

Oxford Circle is one of those neighborhoods. Once considered a “naturally occurring retirement community” for its high concentration of senior citizens, the neighborhood is now adapting to the needs of a massive spike in young people. According to Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Map, between 2000 and 2010, nearly all of the census tracts that make up the neighborhood have seen the population under the age of 18 increase by 21 percent or more, while the population over the age of 65 fell at the same rate. About half the tracts in Oxford Circle have seen the number of children between the ages of 5 and 9 increase by 58 percent, according to Reinvestment Fund. Many are refugees: Over the past two years, just one of the three agencies active in Philadelphia has resettled over 50 families in the Northeast section of the city that includes Oxford Circle.

I spent several months talking to the students, parents, teachers, pastors and social service providers who live, work and learn in Oxford Circle, a triangular tract roughly bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the east, Oxford Avenue on the west and Cottman Avenue on the north. In this fast-growing neighborhood, there’s no one story of what it means to be an immigrant or an American or a Philadelphian. One shop owner told me with disgust that he’d been profiled, pulled over and had his car towed — wrongly, he felt — and when he paid $75 to get it back, he found his Brazilian flag bumper sticker had been scraped off. A high school student and refugee gushed over what a relief it is to be in a country where she could trust police not to stop her at random and demand her immigration papers. Their stories would likely be familiar in many other aging, postindustrial American cities where immigrants play an important and, often, contested role in reviving stagnant local economies.

Instead of trying to present Oxford Circle’s story as a monolith, we have chosen to share the experiences of a handful of new Philadelphians in a neighborhood that represents both the city’s dynamic present, and a future yet to be determined. We’ve respected requests to use only first names for several subjects in order to preserve their privacy. These stories and the accompanying photos are part of Next City’s ongoing Philadelphia in Flux project, a data-driven exploration of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods supported by the William Penn Foundation.

A Refugee of War Finds Peace in Learning

Fatima Hussaine arrived in the U.S. in January. 

Fatima Hussaine, 18, and her three sisters arrived in the U.S. only 10 months ago. Originally from Afghanistan, the sisters fled to India and then Malaysia before receiving refugee status in the U.S., two and a half years after leaving Afghanistan. For all that time, and longer, Hussaine was unable to go to school.

“In Afghanistan, the level of education, sadly is so low,” she says. The bombings made it unsafe to leave the house, and when they were able to, there may be no classrooms, no school building. For two years before she left Afghanistan, she didn’t attend school at all.

“That one was the hardest time I had in my life,” she recalls. “I love Afghanistan, but in that time, Afghanistan became one small room. You cannot go outside, you cannot study, every time bomb, bomb, bomb.” Even in safety, her freedoms were curtailed: As they neared puberty, she and the girls were forbidden from playing soccer outside.

Though she misses her native country, leaving provided an education she never could have gotten otherwise. “In Afghanistan the ladies are all dependent to men. They cannot have their own house, they cannot stand in their own place,” she says. India, her first stop outside the country, was different. “They respect ladies, they say they are like a god. The ladies can have their own job. The ladies can have their own house,” she tells me, clearly enraptured by the idea. Seeing that, she says, “It was inside my heart something grow up: We can also have house, we can also study, we can also work.”

Now, for the first time in four years, she’s back in school: an 18-year-old in ninth-grade classes at Northeast High School, the city’s most populated high school. Drawing students from Oxford Circle as well as Rhawnhurst and other surrounding neighborhoods, it’s a remarkably diverse place. Among the 3,600 students, over 60 languages are spoken, about a fifth of students are currently in English-language-learner classes, and at least half the student body learned English as a second language.

Hussaine’s English is quite good, but she still attends an after-school program intended to help refugee youth with their English and homework. Run by the refugee resettlement agency HIAS Pennsylvania, the program was designed for students like her whose educations have been significantly disrupted. Many of the students — hailing from Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq — are being asked to comprehend new content when they don’t yet speak the language.

But aside from giddily calling out the names of shapes and colors and common foods from Sesame Street flash cards, and the fact that most of the high-schoolers are babbling away in Arabic, they appear just like American teenagers: stealing each other’s fidget spinners, applying Snapchat filters to their selfies, flirting noisily. Two girls are practicing an acoustic version of Katy Perry’s “Fight Song” for the class graduation. Beneath the surface, they’re grappling with histories their American counterparts aren’t.

Since she came onboard as refugee education coordinator last March, Valeri Harteg of HIAS says the program has broadened its focus from purely homework help to include more language activities and emotional support.

“It’s interesting, you ask kids what they need, and at first a lot stick to the very concrete: homework help and English. I think that as they get more involved in the program, social struggles come out,” says Harteg. “They’ve been through so much, and it’s very easy for us to say kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back. But the older kids, they remember.”

Schools may be understaffed to address those struggles. Northeast High assigns a guidance counselor to ESL students, but with so many, he’s always stretched thin, says Harteg. HIAS is just one of a constellation of social service and arts organizations to partner with Northeast and other area schools in recent years to try to fill some of the gaps. This year, Arab arts organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture brought photographer Wendy Ewald to Northeast High to help students create an “Immigrant’s Alphabet.” Students chose words to illustrate for each letter: B for Border, D for Dreamer, L for Lonely, P for Prisoner, U for Unqualified, X for Xenophobia.

Working with photographer Wendy Ewald to create “An Immigrant’s Alphabet,” Northeast High students act out “T” for “trafficking.”

Another organization called Writers Matter helped the refugee students compose poetry. Like the alphabet, they read as reflections on the in-between spaces many inhabit. “I am happy / I believe in Mohammed / I want to see my sister that is in Jordan,” reads one.

“I am in love with chocolate / I believe I can run faster / I want to be a soccer player / I am athletic / I felt sad when I leave my country / I wonder how my country is now / I worry about my country / I am helpful / I understand writing / I try to be a soldier / I hope I’ll be a soldier / I am brave,” reads another.

Building a Life for the Next Generation

Amin, an immigrant from Morocco, lives in Oxford Circle with her two daughters. 

“I live now only for my kids. They are my life, they are my life,” Amin tells me, softly crying, in the lobby of the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, less than a block from her home.

She’s received a lot of support here at the Family Resource Center run by the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), an offshoot of the very active church. Last year, when Amin left her husband, her children received counseling there. Her daughters — Chams, 9, and Aya, 12 — attend after-school programs that the OCCCDA runs, and resource center staff helped her find a good middle school for Aya.

Earlier generations of Oxford Circle kids went to middle school in the neighborhood at Laura H. Carnell Middle School, associated with Laura H. Carnell Elementary. But several years ago, the middle school building was condemned and the school district, lacking the resources to fix it, shuttered it instead. Now many in the neighborhood ride two public buses 45 minutes to Harding Middle School, one of the lowest-ranked in the city, or attend Woodrow Wilson Middle School, at the northern reach of Oxford Circle, near Northeast High.

Sending 11-year-olds to commute by bus can be daunting for parents, says Hilderbrand Pelzer, Carnell Elementary’s principal since 2012, especially since 90 percent of Carnell elementary students walk to school. But as of now, there are no plans for the school district to open a new middle school nearby. Instead, Carnell, working with OCCCDA, has increased outreach to help parents decide where to send kids next. That’s included special workshops for immigrant parents navigating the system, in addition to other quarterly workshops for non-English-speaking parents about curriculum, counseling and other issues.

The former Laura H. Carnell Middle School sits shuttered. 

Pelzer says that while Carnell’s student population is half African-American, the number of countries and languages represented there continues to rise.

“This is encouraging for Carnell’s future. It’s also challenging,” he says. “We have to make certain as a school that we have resources in place to support our new families, our immigrant families, where some parents do not speak English as their first language, and we have some students enrolled in our school that do not speak English as their first language.”

Amin, with OCCCDA’s assistance, helped her daughter apply to a charter school. She’ll do the same for high school. Fels High, directly behind Amin’s house, is also among Philadelphia’s lowest-ranked schools.

Despite the support Amin, who’s 50, has found at the resource center, life can be isolating, she says.

She left the father of her daughters when he returned to Morocco and married another woman, planning to maintain both marriages. “He imagined that I never go to the courts because I afraid of him, and that’s why he do what he like,” says Amin. While he was away, she filed for divorce. Now, she’s raising the girls alone.

Amin has two neighbors she can rely on, and some OCCCDA staff, but she goes back and forth on whether she feels part of a community. “I have my neighbor, two neighbor,” she says. “I talk with them, that’s it.” But she also says she’s always gotten help when she asked, first in an English language program that also helped her find her job at the day care, then from OCCCDA. She plans to stay in Philadelphia so her daughters can finish their education. Her eyes light up when she talks about the girls and their potential here. Chams hopes to be a doctor, Aya an astronaut. Already they’ve lived more of their lives in the U.S. than elsewhere.

“I come for my kids. I need to stay with them until they get good diplomas and good jobs. I can’t move,” she says.

“Nadia, how long have you been in the U.S.?” asks Theresa Leduna, teaching an early morning English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.

Nadia is shy — it’s her first day in class; she looks to the two Haitian men she has just met and with whom she shares a language. One of the men prompts her, murmuring, in Creole. “Eight months,” she says. She’s the newest American in a room full of immigrants: One woman moved from Morocco 10 years ago, another five years, but most of the students have been here five years or less.

Theresa Leduna teaches an English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.

“Do you have family here?” Leduna continues. Nadia nods, her shoulders hunched, smiling tightly. Most of the students do, that’s why they chose Philadelphia. “It’s so much easier when you have family in a place,” Leduna says, smiling back at her young student.

Leduna has been in the U.S. just about 15 years herself, and in Philadelphia just three. When her mother moved from the Philippines to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Georgia, Leduna, in college and nearly 21 at the time, had the chance to join the family. She came in search of the American dream and all that, she says. When Leduna married a man with family in Philadelphia, they moved to the suburbs, but it felt, she says, “unhealthy” there, lonely. They moved into Philadelphia to be closer to the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

“I really wanted to be a part of the community,” she says. In the Northeast, “You start noticing something. You notice the diversity. You notice the public schools. You start dreaming for your community, what could be better.” Teaching ELL, says Leduna, “[has] fueled my own dreams.”

“Even though we come from very different backgrounds and cultures, we come [to this class] as immigrants so we understand each other’s struggles and fears,” she says. The day after the 2016 presidential election, some students came in with their eyes puffy from crying. The class talked about what had happened. In the coming weeks, the Family Resource Center brought in the New Sanctuary Movement and had an immigration lawyer educate students about their rights. One student, though, has already had to return to Sudan. The ELL class had a goodbye party for her.

After nearly two decades in the U.S., Leduna admits the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but sees Philadelphia as an exceptionally open city. Her students have similarly mixed views on their new home. One woman, who moved from Morocco to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia for her husband’s work, says she preferred Georgia. It’s cleaner there. “The mice!” she exclaims of Philadelphia, wrinkling her nose. When I ask if they feel they’ve developed a community here, another woman in a headscarf who had been in the city for five months, shakes her head. “I just stay home,” she says.

In OCCCDA’s first years, the organization focused on the first needs of many new immigrant families: childcare, after-school programs, English language classes. Now the church is looking to create opportunities for Muslim women like her who want to work, but also stay true to their cultures and their husbands’ expectations. The organization is considering opening a thrift store on Castor Avenue or Cottman Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial corridors, where women could sort donations away from public view. They already have access to a commercial kitchen that could support a catering business. One Moroccan student says she dreams of opening a bakery.

“If you want a child to thrive, how about working hard to ensure that the mother and the father, the parents and/or caretakers, have access to the opportunity to make a living that will allow them to be self-sufficient and able to invest in their children’s lives,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents Oxford Circle. Parker taught ELL to both children and adults before becoming a City Council member and has, since being elected, prioritized creating opportunities for immigrants. In addition to job training, Parker especially wants immigrant business owners along the neighborhood’s commercial corridors to be able to access storefront improvement funding and other available programs. She and her staff are talking about creating a mobile ELL team that can offer classes around her district. In a unique approach, she talks about enlisting children — who often encounter English all day long at school — in co-teaching their parents.

Estella Edward and Gabrielle Acuedo practice the song they’ll sing at a graduation ceremony for their after-school program for refugee students.

The need is great. The city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs estimates that up to 43 percent of Oxford Circle residents don’t speak English. OCCCDA offers classes in the mornings and evenings several days a week, but they can’t always provide childcare, a barrier for some — particularly women. When HIAS, the refugee resettlement agency, began offering childcare at their classes, women’s participation increased, says Harteg. But those courses are only for clients in the resettlement period. Once that ended for clients, Harteg often found herself calling around to churches and other groups to find informal classes.

As of June, that task might be a little easier. The Immigrant Affairs and Adult Education offices partnered to create a new interactive map that displays all ELL classes in the city, overlaid with the percentage of non-English speakers in the neighborhood. Oxford Circle has just two classes listed: OCCCDA’s and the Center for Literacy’s. Miriam Enriquez, director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, says in addition to pointing potential students to existing classes, the map is intended to highlight where more are needed. Though nearly all of the Northeast is a splotch of deep purple, indicating over a third of residents are non-English-speaking, the whole area hosts barely more classes than Center City, where rates are much lower.

A Teacher Returns to the Classroom as a Student

Antonio, who was a teacher in Guatemala, sits in an ELL class.

Antonio, 25, dreams of becoming a biologist. Back home in Guatemala, before he headed north and crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, he was a teacher. Someday, he’d like to be a teacher again.

Since arriving in Philadelphia last year, he’s worked in a restaurant and cleaning the cafeteria at Alvernia University in North Philadelphia. In Guatemala, he taught children ranging from kindergarten to middle school in one classroom, rising at 4 a.m. to walk to school, a trip that took over two hours, uphill.

Here, he says, he’s amazed at the glut of “technology” in American schools. But when he gives examples, he cites supplies most would take for granted: paper, notebooks. “For teachers, it’s excellent,” he says.

He’d like to go back to college to study biology, but it’s too expensive to go to school here in the U.S. “I don’t like work, I like more school,” he laughs. But for now, he’s working long hours — often overnight — attending ELL classes twice a week, and working on his English on his own. Over a bowl of alphabet soup at a diner where he’s known to all the staff, Antonio tells me he’s reading a version of the Bible in English and in Spanish. One day, he wants to teach English back home. But if he leaves the U.S., Antonio, who is undocumented, doesn’t know if he can return.

After Fleeing Persecution in Tajikistan, an Aspiring Journalist Finds Freedom in Philadelphia

Rushana Masimova sits on the steps of Northeast High last spring. 

Rushana Masimova, 18, is graduating from Northeast High this spring. She plans to attend community college next year and transfer to Temple University once she has a better grasp on English. Her family, refugees from Tajikistan, knew no one in the U.S. before they moved here last year.

“If we knew other people in the U.S., they would put us with our friends and relatives. But we don’t know anybody so they choose Philadelphia because it is the cheaper city and there are a lot of Russian people, I think. They thought it was going to be easier to us to live in Philadelphia,” she says.

It hasn’t been quite so easy. Masimova’s mother wears a headscarf, but her employers at a day care told her she had to choose between scarf and job. She quit, and was out of work for three months, during which time the family struggled to pay rent. Back in Tajikistan, she’d been a journalist for Radio Liberty, where her writing put her on the wrong side of the government. After death threats, to her and the children, and after her husband abandoned the family out of fear, the family, which also includes Masimova’s two younger siblings, fled for Turkey. They stayed there four years until a refugee agency called to say they’d been accepted to come to America.

“I was happy, and then I was sad,” says Masimova of the news. “Because my childhood, everything was in Turkey. And I got a lot of experience in Turkey, I learned everything.”

Including Turkish, and a new view on Islam. “I thought that Islam is something like bombing, killing, but when we went to Turkey, they were explaining that Islam is not killing. God says don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t do bad stuff. Islam is peace, be friendly and other stuff,” she says. In Tajikistan, religious expression is deeply curtailed. Women cannot go to the mosque after the age of 18, and need permission to wear a headscarf. “You have a lot of rights in Turkey.”

Now, Masimova is looking for a summer job. She has her driver’s permit, but she needs an instructor; her mom is too new of a driver in the U.S. to teach her legally. “The car is your food in America. If you don’t have car, you can’t get anywhere on time,” she says. It’s especially difficult in neighborhoods like Oxford Circle. According to Reinvestment Fund data, the average Philadelphia block is .7 miles from the nearest transit line, but the average block in a high foreign-born middle market like this one is over a mile away.

Right now, Masimova can walk to school. Next year, she’ll take a bus to a train to get downtown to the Community College of Philadelphia. She’s already writing stories for the school paper, and wants to study journalism.

In Tajikistan, she says, knowledge is not valued in women. “But Turkey is different and America is different. That’s why I like those two countries. Because you are feeling you are free,” she says.

Perhaps her most eye-opening education since arriving in Philadelphia has been about U.S. history. “When I came to America I thought that America didn’t have any problems from before. Because if you going to look around, America doesn’t have many problems and other countries does. And when I come and read American history, I think, what, this happened in America?” She knew about slavery, but not how long African-Americans had been denied voting and other basic rights. “I just surprised when I heard about this stuff, and crisis in America. I never would believe in it if I was somewhere outside America.”

Does she think she’ll ever feel American? “I hope so! Because America is supporting us a lot. America is helping us with everything. Why not, right? Because America is everyone’s country. Nobody telling that you are Turkish, you’re Uzbek, you’re something else. We are all Americans.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Meet the New Immigrants Reviving a Philadelphia Neighborhood

Half a dozen children bounce on a trampoline on the cramped front lawn of a Northeast Philadelphia rowhome, a big sister in a hijab keeping watch from the front steps. “Mohammed,” giggles a toddler, “take off your zapatos if you want to jump on the trampoline.”

The next block over, a mother pulls her son by the arm up the steps to their own, identical rowhome. He struggles against her grip and shouts sulkingly to three girls at the bottom of the stairs, “You’re black too, you know.” One of the girls — all of them are African-American — around the age of 10, calls back coolly, “At least we’re not Indian.”

Behind the neat facades of brick rowhomes marching block by block across Oxford Circle, a neighborhood is changing. Another block over, a woman stands on the steps of her home of 26 years and points across the street. Until just a few years ago, she says, that house and that house and that house, nearly all of them, were inhabited by white, mostly Irish-Catholic, Philadelphia natives like herself. Many were senior citizens. As they’ve passed away, new families have moved in from far further afield: Bangladesh, Syria, the Dominican Republic. The ice cream man is Palestinian, she says. He’s the one who taught her about Islamic restrictions on touching dogs, when she wondered why the neighborhood kids sometimes rushed to pet hers and other times shied away. “So I’m learning,” she says.

In a neighborhood where the number of foreign-born families has increased dramatically over the past two decades, everyone has a lot to learn. Since reaching its lowest point in a century in 2006, Philadelphia’s population has been steadily growing. But contrary to popular perception, the people driving that change aren’t upwardly mobile, white millennials snapping up the new cookie-cutter condos downtown. The vast majority of Philadelphia’s population growth is occurring in outlying “middle neighborhoods” — places that fall in the middle of the spectrum for incomes and housing prices, experiencing neither gentrification and displacement, nor shrinkage and stagnation, data compiled by Reinvestment Fund in partnership with Next City shows (full data set available in a brief by Reinvestment Fund here).

There are 138 census tracts in Philadelphia that meet this description. Forty-one percent of the city’s population lives in one, including a majority of the city’s immigrants. In 25 of these “middle neighborhood” tracts, more than a quarter of residents were born outside the U.S. In the city as a whole, just 13 percent were. While Philadelphia’s population overall grew by 2 percent between 2000 and 2015, and all middle markets grew by 5 percent, the population in these areas grew by 15 percent. That means in these 25 census tracts, the majority clustered in the Northeast, the number of immigrants increased from 26,942 in 2000 to 48,623 in 2015, a leap of 80 percent.

Around downtown, the picture of growth and development has been of new, wealthy, white faces pushing out brown and black residents. In these neighborhoods, another dynamic is at play: Refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented, are replacing an aging white population, bringing with them new foods, new customs, new expectations for their futures. As they do, education needs are changing — both for the surge in young people, and for their parents, who are often also learning a new language, adapting to local customs and seeking work. Many have come in hopes of a better education for their children and themselves, and ended up in a city with an under-resourced, overcrowded school system. Now they, the schools and a host of social service agencies are trying to fill the gaps.

Oxford Circle is one of those neighborhoods. Once considered a “naturally occurring retirement community” for its high concentration of senior citizens, the neighborhood is now adapting to the needs of a massive spike in young people. According to Reinvestment Fund’s Policy Map, between 2000 and 2010, nearly all of the census tracts that make up the neighborhood have seen the population under the age of 18 increase by 21 percent or more, while the population over the age of 65 fell at the same rate. About half the tracts in Oxford Circle have seen the number of children between the ages of 5 and 9 increase by 58 percent, according to Reinvestment Fund. Many are refugees: Over the past two years, just one of the three agencies active in Philadelphia has resettled over 50 families in the Northeast section of the city that includes Oxford Circle.

I spent several months talking to the students, parents, teachers, pastors and social service providers who live, work and learn in Oxford Circle, a triangular tract roughly bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the east, Oxford Avenue on the west and Cottman Avenue on the north. In this fast-growing neighborhood, there’s no one story of what it means to be an immigrant or an American or a Philadelphian. One shop owner told me with disgust that he’d been profiled, pulled over and had his car towed — wrongly, he felt — and when he paid $75 to get it back, he found his Brazilian flag bumper sticker had been scraped off. A high school student and refugee gushed over what a relief it is to be in a country where she could trust police not to stop her at random and demand her immigration papers. Their stories would likely be familiar in many other aging, postindustrial American cities where immigrants play an important and, often, contested role in reviving stagnant local economies.

Instead of trying to present Oxford Circle’s story as a monolith, we have chosen to share the experiences of a handful of new Philadelphians in a neighborhood that represents both the city’s dynamic present, and a future yet to be determined. We’ve respected requests to use only first names for several subjects in order to preserve their privacy. These stories and the accompanying photos are part of Next City’s ongoing Philadelphia in Flux project, a data-driven exploration of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods supported by the William Penn Foundation.

A Refugee of War Finds Peace in Learning

Fatima Hussaine arrived in the U.S. in January. 

Fatima Hussaine, 18, and her three sisters arrived in the U.S. only 10 months ago. Originally from Afghanistan, the sisters fled to India and then Malaysia before receiving refugee status in the U.S., two and a half years after leaving Afghanistan. For all that time, and longer, Hussaine was unable to go to school.

“In Afghanistan, the level of education, sadly is so low,” she says. The bombings made it unsafe to leave the house, and when they were able to, there may be no classrooms, no school building. For two years before she left Afghanistan, she didn’t attend school at all.

“That one was the hardest time I had in my life,” she recalls. “I love Afghanistan, but in that time, Afghanistan became one small room. You cannot go outside, you cannot study, every time bomb, bomb, bomb.” Even in safety, her freedoms were curtailed: As they neared puberty, she and the girls were forbidden from playing soccer outside.

Though she misses her native country, leaving provided an education she never could have gotten otherwise. “In Afghanistan the ladies are all dependent to men. They cannot have their own house, they cannot stand in their own place,” she says. India, her first stop outside the country, was different. “They respect ladies, they say they are like a god. The ladies can have their own job. The ladies can have their own house,” she tells me, clearly enraptured by the idea. Seeing that, she says, “It was inside my heart something grow up: We can also have house, we can also study, we can also work.”

Now, for the first time in four years, she’s back in school: an 18-year-old in ninth-grade classes at Northeast High School, the city’s most populated high school. Drawing students from Oxford Circle as well as Rhawnhurst and other surrounding neighborhoods, it’s a remarkably diverse place. Among the 3,600 students, over 60 languages are spoken, about a fifth of students are currently in English-language-learner classes, and at least half the student body learned English as a second language.

Hussaine’s English is quite good, but she still attends an after-school program intended to help refugee youth with their English and homework. Run by the refugee resettlement agency HIAS Pennsylvania, the program was designed for students like her whose educations have been significantly disrupted. Many of the students — hailing from Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq — are being asked to comprehend new content when they don’t yet speak the language.

But aside from giddily calling out the names of shapes and colors and common foods from Sesame Street flash cards, and the fact that most of the high-schoolers are babbling away in Arabic, they appear just like American teenagers: stealing each other’s fidget spinners, applying Snapchat filters to their selfies, flirting noisily. Two girls are practicing an acoustic version of Katy Perry’s “Fight Song” for the class graduation. Beneath the surface, they’re grappling with histories their American counterparts aren’t.

Since she came onboard as refugee education coordinator last March, Valeri Harteg of HIAS says the program has broadened its focus from purely homework help to include more language activities and emotional support.

“It’s interesting, you ask kids what they need, and at first a lot stick to the very concrete: homework help and English. I think that as they get more involved in the program, social struggles come out,” says Harteg. “They’ve been through so much, and it’s very easy for us to say kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back. But the older kids, they remember.”

Schools may be understaffed to address those struggles. Northeast High assigns a guidance counselor to ESL students, but with so many, he’s always stretched thin, says Harteg. HIAS is just one of a constellation of social service and arts organizations to partner with Northeast and other area schools in recent years to try to fill some of the gaps. This year, Arab arts organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture brought photographer Wendy Ewald to Northeast High to help students create an “Immigrant’s Alphabet.” Students chose words to illustrate for each letter: B for Border, D for Dreamer, L for Lonely, P for Prisoner, U for Unqualified, X for Xenophobia.

Working with photographer Wendy Ewald to create “An Immigrant’s Alphabet,” Northeast High students act out “T” for “trafficking.”

Another organization called Writers Matter helped the refugee students compose poetry. Like the alphabet, they read as reflections on the in-between spaces many inhabit. “I am happy / I believe in Mohammed / I want to see my sister that is in Jordan,” reads one.

“I am in love with chocolate / I believe I can run faster / I want to be a soccer player / I am athletic / I felt sad when I leave my country / I wonder how my country is now / I worry about my country / I am helpful / I understand writing / I try to be a soldier / I hope I’ll be a soldier / I am brave,” reads another.

Building a Life for the Next Generation

Amin, an immigrant from Morocco, lives in Oxford Circle with her two daughters. 

“I live now only for my kids. They are my life, they are my life,” Amin tells me, softly crying, in the lobby of the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, less than a block from her home.

She’s received a lot of support here at the Family Resource Center run by the Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), an offshoot of the very active church. Last year, when Amin left her husband, her children received counseling there. Her daughters — Chams, 9, and Aya, 12 — attend after-school programs that the OCCCDA runs, and resource center staff helped her find a good middle school for Aya.

Earlier generations of Oxford Circle kids went to middle school in the neighborhood at Laura H. Carnell Middle School, associated with Laura H. Carnell Elementary. But several years ago, the middle school building was condemned and the school district, lacking the resources to fix it, shuttered it instead. Now many in the neighborhood ride two public buses 45 minutes to Harding Middle School, one of the lowest-ranked in the city, or attend Woodrow Wilson Middle School, at the northern reach of Oxford Circle, near Northeast High.

Sending 11-year-olds to commute by bus can be daunting for parents, says Hilderbrand Pelzer, Carnell Elementary’s principal since 2012, especially since 90 percent of Carnell elementary students walk to school. But as of now, there are no plans for the school district to open a new middle school nearby. Instead, Carnell, working with OCCCDA, has increased outreach to help parents decide where to send kids next. That’s included special workshops for immigrant parents navigating the system, in addition to other quarterly workshops for non-English-speaking parents about curriculum, counseling and other issues.

The former Laura H. Carnell Middle School sits shuttered. 

Pelzer says that while Carnell’s student population is half African-American, the number of countries and languages represented there continues to rise.

“This is encouraging for Carnell’s future. It’s also challenging,” he says. “We have to make certain as a school that we have resources in place to support our new families, our immigrant families, where some parents do not speak English as their first language, and we have some students enrolled in our school that do not speak English as their first language.”

Amin, with OCCCDA’s assistance, helped her daughter apply to a charter school. She’ll do the same for high school. Fels High, directly behind Amin’s house, is also among Philadelphia’s lowest-ranked schools.

Despite the support Amin, who’s 50, has found at the resource center, life can be isolating, she says.

She left the father of her daughters when he returned to Morocco and married another woman, planning to maintain both marriages. “He imagined that I never go to the courts because I afraid of him, and that’s why he do what he like,” says Amin. While he was away, she filed for divorce. Now, she’s raising the girls alone.

Amin has two neighbors she can rely on, and some OCCCDA staff, but she goes back and forth on whether she feels part of a community. “I have my neighbor, two neighbor,” she says. “I talk with them, that’s it.” But she also says she’s always gotten help when she asked, first in an English language program that also helped her find her job at the day care, then from OCCCDA. She plans to stay in Philadelphia so her daughters can finish their education. Her eyes light up when she talks about the girls and their potential here. Chams hopes to be a doctor, Aya an astronaut. Already they’ve lived more of their lives in the U.S. than elsewhere.

“I come for my kids. I need to stay with them until they get good diplomas and good jobs. I can’t move,” she says.

“Nadia, how long have you been in the U.S.?” asks Theresa Leduna, teaching an early morning English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.

Nadia is shy — it’s her first day in class; she looks to the two Haitian men she has just met and with whom she shares a language. One of the men prompts her, murmuring, in Creole. “Eight months,” she says. She’s the newest American in a room full of immigrants: One woman moved from Morocco 10 years ago, another five years, but most of the students have been here five years or less.

Theresa Leduna teaches an English language class for adults at the Family Resource Center.

“Do you have family here?” Leduna continues. Nadia nods, her shoulders hunched, smiling tightly. Most of the students do, that’s why they chose Philadelphia. “It’s so much easier when you have family in a place,” Leduna says, smiling back at her young student.

Leduna has been in the U.S. just about 15 years herself, and in Philadelphia just three. When her mother moved from the Philippines to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Georgia, Leduna, in college and nearly 21 at the time, had the chance to join the family. She came in search of the American dream and all that, she says. When Leduna married a man with family in Philadelphia, they moved to the suburbs, but it felt, she says, “unhealthy” there, lonely. They moved into Philadelphia to be closer to the Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

“I really wanted to be a part of the community,” she says. In the Northeast, “You start noticing something. You notice the diversity. You notice the public schools. You start dreaming for your community, what could be better.” Teaching ELL, says Leduna, “[has] fueled my own dreams.”

“Even though we come from very different backgrounds and cultures, we come [to this class] as immigrants so we understand each other’s struggles and fears,” she says. The day after the 2016 presidential election, some students came in with their eyes puffy from crying. The class talked about what had happened. In the coming weeks, the Family Resource Center brought in the New Sanctuary Movement and had an immigration lawyer educate students about their rights. One student, though, has already had to return to Sudan. The ELL class had a goodbye party for her.

After nearly two decades in the U.S., Leduna admits the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but sees Philadelphia as an exceptionally open city. Her students have similarly mixed views on their new home. One woman, who moved from Morocco to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia for her husband’s work, says she preferred Georgia. It’s cleaner there. “The mice!” she exclaims of Philadelphia, wrinkling her nose. When I ask if they feel they’ve developed a community here, another woman in a headscarf who had been in the city for five months, shakes her head. “I just stay home,” she says.

In OCCCDA’s first years, the organization focused on the first needs of many new immigrant families: childcare, after-school programs, English language classes. Now the church is looking to create opportunities for Muslim women like her who want to work, but also stay true to their cultures and their husbands’ expectations. The organization is considering opening a thrift store on Castor Avenue or Cottman Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial corridors, where women could sort donations away from public view. They already have access to a commercial kitchen that could support a catering business. One Moroccan student says she dreams of opening a bakery.

“If you want a child to thrive, how about working hard to ensure that the mother and the father, the parents and/or caretakers, have access to the opportunity to make a living that will allow them to be self-sufficient and able to invest in their children’s lives,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents Oxford Circle. Parker taught ELL to both children and adults before becoming a City Council member and has, since being elected, prioritized creating opportunities for immigrants. In addition to job training, Parker especially wants immigrant business owners along the neighborhood’s commercial corridors to be able to access storefront improvement funding and other available programs. She and her staff are talking about creating a mobile ELL team that can offer classes around her district. In a unique approach, she talks about enlisting children — who often encounter English all day long at school — in co-teaching their parents.

Estella Edward and Gabrielle Acuedo practice the song they’ll sing at a graduation ceremony for their after-school program for refugee students.

The need is great. The city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs estimates that up to 43 percent of Oxford Circle residents don’t speak English. OCCCDA offers classes in the mornings and evenings several days a week, but they can’t always provide childcare, a barrier for some — particularly women. When HIAS, the refugee resettlement agency, began offering childcare at their classes, women’s participation increased, says Harteg. But those courses are only for clients in the resettlement period. Once that ended for clients, Harteg often found herself calling around to churches and other groups to find informal classes.

As of June, that task might be a little easier. The Immigrant Affairs and Adult Education offices partnered to create a new interactive map that displays all ELL classes in the city, overlaid with the percentage of non-English speakers in the neighborhood. Oxford Circle has just two classes listed: OCCCDA’s and the Center for Literacy’s. Miriam Enriquez, director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, says in addition to pointing potential students to existing classes, the map is intended to highlight where more are needed. Though nearly all of the Northeast is a splotch of deep purple, indicating over a third of residents are non-English-speaking, the whole area hosts barely more classes than Center City, where rates are much lower.

A Teacher Returns to the Classroom as a Student

Antonio, who was a teacher in Guatemala, sits in an ELL class.

Antonio, 25, dreams of becoming a biologist. Back home in Guatemala, before he headed north and crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, he was a teacher. Someday, he’d like to be a teacher again.

Since arriving in Philadelphia last year, he’s worked in a restaurant and cleaning the cafeteria at Alvernia University in North Philadelphia. In Guatemala, he taught children ranging from kindergarten to middle school in one classroom, rising at 4 a.m. to walk to school, a trip that took over two hours, uphill.

Here, he says, he’s amazed at the glut of “technology” in American schools. But when he gives examples, he cites supplies most would take for granted: paper, notebooks. “For teachers, it’s excellent,” he says.

He’d like to go back to college to study biology, but it’s too expensive to go to school here in the U.S. “I don’t like work, I like more school,” he laughs. But for now, he’s working long hours — often overnight — attending ELL classes twice a week, and working on his English on his own. Over a bowl of alphabet soup at a diner where he’s known to all the staff, Antonio tells me he’s reading a version of the Bible in English and in Spanish. One day, he wants to teach English back home. But if he leaves the U.S., Antonio, who is undocumented, doesn’t know if he can return.

After Fleeing Persecution in Tajikistan, an Aspiring Journalist Finds Freedom in Philadelphia

Rushana Masimova sits on the steps of Northeast High last spring. 

Rushana Masimova, 18, is graduating from Northeast High this spring. She plans to attend community college next year and transfer to Temple University once she has a better grasp on English. Her family, refugees from Tajikistan, knew no one in the U.S. before they moved here last year.

“If we knew other people in the U.S., they would put us with our friends and relatives. But we don’t know anybody so they choose Philadelphia because it is the cheaper city and there are a lot of Russian people, I think. They thought it was going to be easier to us to live in Philadelphia,” she says.

It hasn’t been quite so easy. Masimova’s mother wears a headscarf, but her employers at a day care told her she had to choose between scarf and job. She quit, and was out of work for three months, during which time the family struggled to pay rent. Back in Tajikistan, she’d been a journalist for Radio Liberty, where her writing put her on the wrong side of the government. After death threats, to her and the children, and after her husband abandoned the family out of fear, the family, which also includes Masimova’s two younger siblings, fled for Turkey. They stayed there four years until a refugee agency called to say they’d been accepted to come to America.

“I was happy, and then I was sad,” says Masimova of the news. “Because my childhood, everything was in Turkey. And I got a lot of experience in Turkey, I learned everything.”

Including Turkish, and a new view on Islam. “I thought that Islam is something like bombing, killing, but when we went to Turkey, they were explaining that Islam is not killing. God says don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t do bad stuff. Islam is peace, be friendly and other stuff,” she says. In Tajikistan, religious expression is deeply curtailed. Women cannot go to the mosque after the age of 18, and need permission to wear a headscarf. “You have a lot of rights in Turkey.”

Now, Masimova is looking for a summer job. She has her driver’s permit, but she needs an instructor; her mom is too new of a driver in the U.S. to teach her legally. “The car is your food in America. If you don’t have car, you can’t get anywhere on time,” she says. It’s especially difficult in neighborhoods like Oxford Circle. According to Reinvestment Fund data, the average Philadelphia block is .7 miles from the nearest transit line, but the average block in a high foreign-born middle market like this one is over a mile away.

Right now, Masimova can walk to school. Next year, she’ll take a bus to a train to get downtown to the Community College of Philadelphia. She’s already writing stories for the school paper, and wants to study journalism.

In Tajikistan, she says, knowledge is not valued in women. “But Turkey is different and America is different. That’s why I like those two countries. Because you are feeling you are free,” she says.

Perhaps her most eye-opening education since arriving in Philadelphia has been about U.S. history. “When I came to America I thought that America didn’t have any problems from before. Because if you going to look around, America doesn’t have many problems and other countries does. And when I come and read American history, I think, what, this happened in America?” She knew about slavery, but not how long African-Americans had been denied voting and other basic rights. “I just surprised when I heard about this stuff, and crisis in America. I never would believe in it if I was somewhere outside America.”

Does she think she’ll ever feel American? “I hope so! Because America is supporting us a lot. America is helping us with everything. Why not, right? Because America is everyone’s country. Nobody telling that you are Turkish, you’re Uzbek, you’re something else. We are all Americans.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

This New Orleans Billboard Won’t Offer a Simplified Slogan

(Credit: Blights Out)

In January, a billboard popped up along New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Expressway. It read, simply, “LaToya.” City Council Member LaToya Cantrell had yet to announce her bid for the mayor’s office, yet to release a policy platform, but there it was, her name — her brand — plastered in big letters.

Last month, a very different type of billboard appeared in New Orleans, promoting a very different type of “candidate.” Across a backdrop of black and white stripes equally reminiscent of prison garb and of an upside-down American flag, the sign reads, “Development without Displacement. Blights Out for Mayor. For New Orleans. For America.”

The billboard is part of a yearlong campaign by transdisciplinary artists and activists collective Blights Out — no members of which, it should be said, are actually running for mayor. Instead, they’re trying to call attention to the underlying inequities that tend to appear in mayoral races purely as subtext or sound bites. Founding member Imani Brown says elections often center superficially around charismatic figures and skin-deep slogans — “Stronger Together,” anyone? — rather than the deeply rooted issues residents face. And yet elections also present an opportunity: They’re virtually the only time some of those issues get raised.

“Elections take up so much focus and attention, and that’s when issues around housing, issues around infrastructure, issues around jobs tend to have the public attention,” Brown says. But when the election ends, those conversations usually end too — without ever having been deeply investigated, and without much promise they’ll be addressed or solved.

“How can we take these shallow campaigns of politicians, that feature their names as brands or their talking heads without a platform attached to it, and how can we flip the script on that and use the power of those aesthetics and those spatial strategies to actually communicate something meaningful?” asks Brown.

Over the next year, Blights Out will try just that, plastering a new sign each month on a billboard at Orleans Avenue and Galvez Street. Each will feature messages drawn from public story circles, conversations with housing activists and New Orleans residents, and from Blights Out’s own research into the roots of common but inequitable real estate terms and practices.

October’s billboard reads, “Ecological apartheid (spatial segregation) is already etched into our housing landscape. Will the future of our city be a gentrified fortress to protect the wealthy from the rising-up of seas and people? We Demand a Post-Katrina Truth and Reconciliation.”

November’s billboard defines disaster capitalism; December’s defines gentrification; January’s defines blight. These are big concepts, and Blights Out is intentionally complicating them, not dumbing them down. (A Kickstarter to fund the project ends on Oct. 12.)

“In New Orleans, you start to notice the vast majority [of billboards] are ads for guns, for liquor and for lawyers,” says Brown. “By and large they’re incredibly useless and alienating or actually harmful. We see this as sort of a proposal: Why are billboards not used to convey important information to the citizens of a place?”

Mariama Eversley, Blights Out’s embedded historian, says their campaign differs from a political campaign in that it tries to get to the root of the problems plaguing New Orleans. Whereas mayoral candidates are railing against crime independent of its causes, Blights Out wants to interrogate the role of skyrocketing housing costs and the high rate of unemployment among the city’s black men.

“Our work is demonstrating: What if we really reconciled with the past?” says Eversley. Each billboard intentionally builds off the last, introducing and defining new terms, all leading up to a proposal for the future: truth and reconciliation in New Orleans, akin to the process that followed apartheid in South Africa. With the rapid pace of gentrification and development in the city following Hurricane Katrina, and the unequal effects of that development on poor residents and residents of color, New Orleans is sick, says Brown, and in need of healing.

“This space we’re in of constantly rushing forward, constantly developing, constantly chasing after this idea of growth, is not allowing us the time to actually stop, to think, to speak to each other, to listen to each other, to know where we’re at and where we’re going,” says Brown. This year’s campaign builds off last year’s similarly tongue-in-cheek “Blights Out for President.” Again, the group didn’t really run a candidate, but rather promoted a vision of “the people for president,” as their lawn signs read.

“We’re trying to flip the script on the idea that one person can carry the needs and conversation all on their own,” says Brown.

On Oct. 14, New Orleanians will vote — yes, Council Member LaToya Cantrell is in the running for mayor. But Blights Out will keep campaigning afterward, not for a politician, but for a reevaluation of the past, and a people’s say in the city’s future.

Chester Announces “Community-Based” Public-Private Partnership

Mouth of Chester Creek on the Delaware River in Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester, Pennsylvania’s recently formed Stormwater Authority announced a partnership last week that aims to help the city meet a federally mandated sewer system fix while also creating jobs for local contractors and spurring economic development.

The city, which is about 18 miles south of Philadelphia, has a combined sewer-stormwater system — and has until 2018 to come up with a plan to minimize flooding and eliminate sewage overflow into the Delaware River and other waterways. To do so, they’ve turned to private company Corvias, in what the city is calling a “community-based” public-private partnership. With an anticipated $50 million from a new stormwater fee, Corvias will plan and implement 350 acres of green stormwater infrastructure, and manage that system for the next 20 to 30 years.

The company took a similar approach in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which was also under a mandate to eliminate polluted runoff. There, as in Chester, Corvias aims to stick to the “high road infrastructure concept,” says Greg Cannito, Corvias project lead.

Cities’ rules around procurement and funding and a lack of collaboration among departments can keep them from realizing all of the potential benefits a single infrastructure project could have, he says. So, for example, when departments are required to choose contractors based solely on lowest cost, they may not be able to hire local, even though developing a loyal local workforce could save money in the long-term — and improve economic prospects for the municipality overall.

In Prince George’s County, Corvias was able to hire 80 percent local businesses and 95 percent minority subcontractors. Nearly a third of all work hours are being done by residents. “It’s not just about building the infrastructure, it’s about building the infrastructure that creates employment,” says Cannito. Those same contractors will carry on maintenance work for the next three decades. “So what you do is you start to create actual expertise, experience, and a base amount of revenue for those small local businesses that they can then go and compete in the region,” he says.

Corvias will take the same approach in Chester, using green stormwater infrastructure as the catalyst. With a $1 million grant from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, which funds sewer, stormwater, and drinking water projects in the state, Corvias and the city of Chester have identified 350 acres for potential projects. They’re focused around a major commercial and residential corridor that is subject to combined sewer overflows and includes City Hall, a regional rail station and a high school.

Cannito says developing green stormwater infrastructure here will not only minimize flooding and toxic runoff, but also add aesthetic charm and possibly pave the way for other investments the city needs.

For example, Corvias and the city are looking at whether there are brownfield sites within the project area that could be addressed simultaneously. And they hope that the improvements might attract other amenities, like a major grocery store or more recreation opportunities.

Both Cannito and Horace Strand, executive director of Chester’s Stormwater Authority, stress that Corvias won’t be choosing or developing these ancillary projects, just speeding them along faster than the city might be able to on its own. “The community drives the mechanism; the community determines what is in their best interest; the community decides what needs to be done,” says Strand. “The private partner comes in and asks, ‘how can we help you fulfill your vision?’”

And if Corvias doesn’t meet guidelines agreed to with the city — like a minimum local hire requirement — the company won’t get paid.

They’ll also ensure projects are well maintained for the next 30 years. Garbage can make eyesores of the best-intended bioswales, but city departments, funded on a yearly basis, sometimes slip on the upkeep. “Everybody loves getting a rain garden, everybody likes getting an improved park,” says Cannito. “But what they really want to know is, how is it maintained?”

By this fall, Corvias hopes to have green stormwater sites and possible ancillary projects scoped out. At the same time, the city hopes to start assessing a new stormwater fee on commercial and industrial properties that would raise the necessary $50 million. Corvias will also seek outside financing, and begin to work with subcontractors to build capacity. The goal is to start construction on the first stormwater projects next spring.

Austin Zoning Overhaul Draws Critics From Both Sides of Density Fight

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger, Flickr) 

Knowing that the rollout of new draft zoning maps would send tempers flaring, Austin Mayor Steve Adler encouraged the public to “chill out” upon their April release. But so far the city’s CodeNext zoning overhaul process continues to provoke strong reactions, virtually from all sides.

Neighborhood preservationists, like the Austin Neighborhoods Council, worry the new code will dramatically increase density in residential neighborhoods. Urbanist groups like AURA think the plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing the city’s affordability crisis. Council Member Ann Kitchen is encouraging patience. The zoning code released in February and the maps released in April are only drafts. Both are going through public comment periods now; the planning and zoning commissions will produce new drafts by the end of the year, and council won’t vote on a final version until spring 2018. “I would say we’re in the early stages of an iterative process,” says Kitchen.

Nonetheless, Eric Goff of AURA worries there’s a lot of work ahead. “It’s possible to redeem it, and we’re going to really try our hardest to do that, but without significant revision to the code and to the maps, it could even be a worse outcome [than what we have now],” he says.

Austin’s current code is, he says, “completely onerous.” On this point, most everyone agrees. Decades of adding conditional overlays to the base zoning has created layer upon layer of complexity, making the code difficult to navigate, even for something as simple as adding a porch to a single-family home.

“Finding what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do is like a treasure hunt,” says Kitchen. After a comprehensive plan update failed in the ’80s, individual neighborhoods were permitted to draft their own land use plans, which now layer awkwardly on top of the existing code.

Jen Todd, a senior planner in Austin’s planning and zoning department, gives the following example: A property may have base commercial zoning, with an overlay for mixed-use development, and then a conditional overlay on top of that as part of a neighborhood plan. In the current code, the requirements for all of those layers would be found in different sections.

“When it’s hard to use, that means it’s a more lengthy and expensive process both for neighbors and for developers. It’s very clunky, it doesn’t work well,” says Kitchen.

It also doesn’t serve the needs of a city that is growing rapidly. Housing is quickly becoming unaffordable to many in Austin, a city dominated by single-family homes and lacking a strong public transportation network. Austin updated its comprehensive plan in 2012. The CodeNext zoning overhaul is intended to help the city achieve the goals laid out in that new vision, called Imagine Austin. Those goals include promoting multimodal transit, affordability, and a more compact and connected city.

Jeb Boyt, of the Alliance for Public Transportation, thinks CodeNext is on the right track for some of these goals. He’s happy that the draft promotes a system in which denser housing is concentrated around neighborhood centers that would be linked by transit corridors. He’s glad those corridors and the center city overall now have a form-based code. But he thinks the plan still fails to categorize as “centers” some areas that clearly are, which means they wouldn’t get the denser housing he thinks they need.

Goff agrees that the plan still makes it too difficult for the city to add “missing middle housing” — including smaller unit sizes and residential property add-ons such as backyard cottages or granny flats. The draft reduces parking requirements, but Goff still thinks they’re too high. And there’s plenty of little details he takes issue with, and has submitted as comments: New dimension requirements for buildings could threaten heritage trees, for examples, and a new 10-foot ceiling height requirement would make construction more expensive.

He also thinks the draft is still overly complex. Right now, it’s over 1,100 pages long, and has expanded the number of zone types from 17 to 26. By his estimation, one of those types doesn’t appear to show up anywhere on the map. (You can compare the existing and proposed zoning maps yourself here.)

Proposed vs. existing zoning maps (Credit: CodeNext)

Todd says the length and number of types are actually a product of the draft code’s clarity. Remember that mixed-use commercial property with a neighborhood plan overlay? To renovate such a lot under existing code, one would need to seek out the requirements for each layer in a different section. CodeNext has instead created a new type of zone that tries to achieve what that string of layers was striving for. No more flipping chapter to chapter to understand what’s possible on a property, but that means the draft also has a lot more repetitive language, adding to its length.

“One thing it does is it puts everything in one place, which of course makes it longer,” says Kitchen. “I don’t think it’s more complicated, but nor do I think that it’s done.”

Right now, the city is receiving comments on the draft maps. Comments on the zoning document, and a series of public information sessions, ended last week. In them, the city heard from both sides: urbanists like Goff and Boyt, and neighborhood preservationists like Mike Lavigne of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. He told KXAN he worried the code would allow for triplexes to be built in his neighborhood. “This would essentially increase that by 50 percent, the number of units allowed on a lot, and then decrease the parking by about 50 percent,” he said.

He also felt the code would not respect his neighborhood’s plan. “That’s something we worked very hard on as a neighborhood and is not respected in the new code,” he said. Todd says CodeNext is required to incorporate neighborhood plans, not dismiss them, and so far that’s how it’s drafted. For urbanists, that’s the problem: Many of the neighborhood plans were more concerned with protecting a certain character than promoting affordability.

Boyt thinks the draft can be amended to satisfy those needs, depending on how CodeNext staff respond to public comment. Goff isn’t feeling optimistic. Kitchen suggests all of this is premature. There’s plenty of time, she says, to get this right.

Can a Memphis Park Ever Be Inclusive With Jefferson Davis Around?

Children paint a mural on the roadway between Mississippi River Park and Memphis Park. (Photo by Edward Valibus)

Memphis has enhanced two parks and a public library through its participation in Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative intended to promote inclusivity in public space in five U.S. cities. But one of those parks has a Jefferson Davis statue, and the other was, until recently, named Confederate Park, and critics say the site choices undermine the very goals of the project.

“It’s just kind of a cloud that hangs over things,” Memphis resident and social justice organizer Tami Sawyer says, referring to the statue of Davis and one of KKK founding member Nathan Bedford Forrest a few blocks away. “No matter what colorful basketball court you throw down there, whatever sign you put up, Jefferson Davis is still being called a hero.”

Memphis’ piece of the philanthropically funded Reimagining the Civic Commons was dubbed Fourth Bluff, and Sawyer thinks any project intended to foster inclusivity shouldn’t have started with these parks — unless the organizers were ready to tackle the racist legacy head on.

Tami Sawyer, in front of the Jefferson Davis statue in downtown Memphis (Courtesy of Tami Sawyer)

The two parks, located along the downtown waterfront, are separated by a steep change in elevation and a road with fast-moving traffic. Though they’re close together, they don’t feel connected. As part of a series of activations, the city closed the roadway to traffic for the summer, painted on basketball courts, and added shade, lighting, chairs, ping-pong, and other games.

The goal, says Dorchelle Spence, vice president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, a project partner, is threefold: Knit together underutilized public spaces, encourage connectivity to nearby downtown and economic development, and create a space that’s welcoming to all residents and encourages them to meet. She says the Mississippi River is a point of pride in the city, and a place that “no matter what neighborhood you live in, you feel some ownership and connection to.”

So far, some Fourth Bluff pop-ups have been more successful at drawing a diverse crowd than others. Attendees of a pop-up ice rink this winter represented a wide range of ages, races, socioeconomic statuses and Memphis neighborhoods, according to information participants provided on waivers. Same for the basketball courts. But events like a pop-up beer garden drew primarily from downtown workers, and didn’t bring in attendees from other neighborhoods.

“What we’re starting to find is the more active uses bring in the more diversity, whereas just coming down to hear music and drink beer appeals to not as broad an audience,” says Spence.

These are the lessons the city is hoping to learn at Fourth Bluff over the course of the three-year project, and to apply to other city parks. Permanent changes will also include landscaping the lower park as a children’s play area and adding a space for fishing and launching nonmotorized boats. The upper park may get a collapsible stage, gardens and a dedicated space for yoga. Last week the bimonthly free yoga class there drew over 100 people. One wonders who chose not to attend because Jefferson Davis was there too.

“There have been people that said the presence of that monument would not stop me from going to an event. Some artists have said it would not stop me from performing in that park,” says Maria Fuhrmann, who represents the city of Memphis on the Civic Commons project. “But we’re starting to hear from people that say this monument absolutely does prevent me from wanting to visit this park or wanting to go to an event here, and that’s important info that we need.”

She says the city chose these parks intentionally in order to further a conversation around what should happen to confederate monuments. After the city voted to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in 2015, Tennessee state lawmakers voted to require approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission before moving statues of historic military figures. Memphis’ application was denied. The city has appealed, but the commission may once again change the rules to prevent the statue’s removal later this month.

All of this applies only to Forrest. The city has not asked for a waiver to remove Davis, only to temporarily change the name of the park in which he sits. In both cases, Sawyer says the city could do more, like sell the parks to nonprofits for a dollar, allow them to remove the statues, and then buy them back. Not doing so sends a message to black residents, she says, and casts a pall over the Fourth Bluff project. “To me it says we don’t care,” says Sawyer.

Two days after New Orleans removed a confederate monument, Sawyer was at Memphis’ Jefferson Davis statue to give an interview. Confederate apologists were there waving flags.

“What if I go take my 11-year-old and 4-year-old nieces to the Fourth Bluff on some Friday and some white supremacists show up with their gear?” she asks. “I gotta wait till that happens? I gotta take that risk with my family and myself and my friends and my community?”

She’s organizing a June 20 community conversation about the statues. The Fourth Bluff is gearing up for another round of Friday pop-ups, and a whole summer of programming, including a beer garden and outdoor concerts. Sawyer won’t be there.

“No, I’m not going to any concert,” she says. “Jay Z could perform at Fourth Bluff, I’ll be at home.”

In Houston Ice Houses, a Designer Sees a Model for Public Space

Rendering of an ice house pavilion along Brays Bayou in Houston’s Third Ward (Photo by David Richmond)

In a city with what Rice University architecture graduate David Richmond calls “an infrastructure of staying inside,” Houston’s ice houses stand out. While much of downtown is connected by underground tunnels that keep workers sheltered from the sun, and while many commute via air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office, Richmond says, “the ice houses are a rare public space in which you are taking in the city and the weather and all of those elements.

Richmond, who’s a project manager at Metalab Studios in Houston, thinks the ice house form could be the basis of a new type of public gathering space along Brays Bayou.

A place where residents could buy ice in the era before refrigeration, many of the houses have since been converted into humble bars selling ice cold beers. They’re simple spaces, spread out through Houston’s neighborhoods, open to the elements via their retractable garage doors. In Houston, this permeability makes them unique, says Richmond, who spent a year photographing over 40 ice houses with the support of a Rice Design Alliance grant.

“Opening up to the city is so rare here,” he says. As he put it in an article for the Houston Chronicle last year: “The simple move of leaving those [garage] doors open overturns the last 50 years of Houston living — hot days stay hot, ugly streets are visible, bad smells can linger, and humidity can ruin your day.” They’re a far cry from the hermetically sealed office buildings of downtown.

And yet, they’ve retained their place in the Houston architectural lexicon. Though several historic ice houses closed during the year Richmond spent photographing them, a handful of bars emulating their form opened as well, two of them in former gas stations. To qualify as part of this “evolving type,” the ice houses Richmond documented needed to have a porous relationship between interior and exterior, and to be a true neighborhood bar — a standalone, not in a row of bars and restaurants.

In his research, he paid attention to both the bars’ interior and their view of the outdoors. Because of Houston’s lack of zoning, and because ice houses provided a vital service and were thus distributed throughout the city, they tend to be located in unexpected places — under freeways, in medians between high-speed roads, landscapes normally reserved for cars.

Exterior of an ice house turned bar (Photo by David Richmond)

View across the street from the same ice house (Photo by David Richmond)

Richmond’s goal, though, wasn’t just to glorify these old beer shacks, but to explore how their permeable form might be applied to other city spaces actually meant for gathering. He hit upon the extensive bayou restoration projects currently underway in Houston, transforming the concretized bayous from purely drainage ditches into a series of parks and greenways.

“Having hike and bike trails is really great for activity in the neighborhood, but if you don’t have a place to go to, it ends up being a path without a node,” says Richmond. Buffalo Bayou — which runs through downtown, touching mostly wealthy, white neighborhoods — has received the most visible arts and recreation projects, but Richmond thinks Brays Bayou, which runs through some of the city’s most diverse ethnic enclaves, could use more such nodes.

In a May article for the Houston Chronicle, he proposed a series of six pavilions along the length of the bayou, based on the ice house form. Each is, as Richmond calls it, a simple study of a square: a steel square in the center, partially enclosed by a glass square, outfitted with curtains that can create yet one more layer of separation between interior and exterior. Though Houston is the United States’ most diverse city, Richmond says its neighborhoods look architecturally rather similar. He doesn’t want to dictate how neighborhoods would use their squares, so each would customize it to their needs.

Rendering of an ice house pavilion used as a farmers market (Photo by David Richmond)

Rendering of an ice house pavilion on a movie night (Photo by David Richmond)

“One neighborhood might need fresh produce and a farmers market type. One might be more useful to have a project like Project Row Houses, that in addition to art provides childcare services and career building for young mothers in the Third Ward,” says Richmond. “I wanted to create one form and copy it six times so that the form was always the same, and differences would be purely from the neighborhood it was in.”

Richmond notes that Houston, with its sprawl and open space, has a unique opportunity; while dense East Coast and European cities had to set aside public squares early in their histories, Houston has the land to build them up from scratch. After his recent article was published, the Houston Parks Board reached out to Richmond to have a conversation about a potential collaboration, though Richmond does not yet know what will become of it.

Data Bike to Hit the Trails in Des Moines

The High Trestle Trail, one segment of central Iowa’s extensive trail system (Photo by Phil Roeder, via Flickr)

This summer, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) will help map conditions on over 600 miles of bicycle trails around Des Moines. Using an e-bike equipped with cameras and an iPhone, INHF staff will ride to capture data about surface roughness and images of the trails.

The Iowa Data Bike, a joint project with the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Iowa Department of Public Health, aims to identify which sections of trail need maintenance so municipalities can direct their dollars wisely.

“We’re seeing this push on making data-driven decisions,” says Marcus Coenen, an MPO planner who has led the Data Bike project. “And then the other element of that is we have fiscally constrained dollars, so we don’t have as much funding as we had in the past. But priorities keep expanding, so we really need to have good data to say, these are really the segments we need to do next.”

The electric-assist cargo bike — purchased from a local Des Moines shop — will capture three types of information: the roughness of the trail, indicating its condition; geotagged photos of trail segments so those conditions can be indexed to actual sites; and 360-degree imagery of the trails that can be uploaded to Google Street View, allowing potential riders a glimpse of what they might find before they embark. Using an electric bike, says Coenen, will not only make the project easier for a rider, but the consistent speed will also help with data collection.

The Iowa Data Bike (Credit: Des Moines Area MPO)

The INHF helped to preserve and develop many of the trails that make up the Central Iowa Regional Trails system, but most are now owned by their local municipalities. It’ll be up to them to make the improvements that the data suggests. Todd Ashby, director of the MPO, says doing so should be in their best interest.

“Trails have become an important part of the cultural experience in central Iowa, as well as an economic benefit to those areas,” he says.

Andrea Boulton, director of trails and greenways at INHF, says the undertaking will also help her organization and the municipalities that own and manage the trails to figure out where better connectivity is needed. Most trails are linked in a loose hub-and-spoke system, but some, like the Summerset Trail, are still cut off. INHF is actively working to connect it now.

“As we continue to grow these systems, we also don’t want to neglect what we currently have,” says Boulton. “But we need a better understanding of what we currently have.” She suspects the data will show worse trail conditions farther from the urban sections, and after the rains the region has seen recently, need for repair on low-lying sections of trail.

A dedicated intern and other INHF staff will spend the next few months riding the bike along the trail system in two-hour spurts — the length of its battery life. Boulton says the project meets many needs: While the MPO initiated it in order to drive smart investment, INHF will also be learning how to improve connectivity, and collecting information for a navigation app that will alert riders to points of interest along the trails.

The Iowa Department of Public Health also gave financial support to the project because of its potential health benefits. The agency has partnered with the MPO before to promote complete streets projects.

“Public health has lots and lots of evidence about when you improve the built environment, it makes it easier for people to be physically active, but the MPO is so much better suited to advocate for that,” says Sarah Taylor Watts, physical activity coordinator at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Right now, the MPO is still testing out the equipment. INHF staff will start mapping in a few weeks. Boulton expects the project to take several months.

What Turned One Cyclist Into Philly Bike-Share’s Most Frequent Rider

A cohort of the Digital Skills and Bike Thrills class (Photo by Darren Burton, Courtesy of the Office of Adult Education)

In a world of ride-hailing apps and sidewalk internet kiosks, bicycling remains one of the lowest-tech thrills available to an urbanite on a daily basis. But signing up for and using bike-share? That takes a little tech savvy.

Last year, realizing digital literacy could be a barrier to participation, Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share system partnered with the city’s Office of Adult Education to offer a class they call “Digital Skills and Bike Thrills.” In it, mostly low-income students of a wide range of ages, educational and racial backgrounds learn how to navigate both city streets and common computer needs.

“Those are two huge fear factors for people: A, getting on one of those blue bikes and riding down Market Street, and then B, getting on the internet and using it in a functional way,” says Jennifer Kobrin, director of digital initiatives at Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education. Though teaching them together may seem an uneasy marriage, “I think it’s also a testament to how much technology is integrated into everything,” she says.

Indego’s monthly pass sign-ups are done online. An app helps navigate stations and displays bike availability. Just checking out a bike requires some tech skills. In a city that has made big strides toward bike-share inclusivity — siting stations widely across the city, not just in wealthy or central locales, and offering a cash payment option — computer skills remained a potential obstacle.

“We saw a lot of people were interested in bike-share but were really nervous about going online logging in and creating a profile,” says Claudia Setubal, who manages the program from the Indego side. “Indego was really interested in accessibility, and particularly figuring out what the barriers to those using bike-share were, and to knock them down as much as possible.”

The classes grew out of another existing city program: Keyspot, a network of rec centers and community organizations that offer free computer use and training in digital skills. As part of its outreach to low-income communities, Indego began advertising to Keyspot clients, but soon it became clear that a deeper collaboration was possible. With a grant from the Innovation Fund, which provides resources to city employees to test out new ideas, the first cohort of the four-week course ran last spring, free to students.

To date, there have been four cohorts, the most recent graduating just last week. About 20 students start each class, and about 61.1 percent complete it — a higher rate than most adult education classes, says Kobrin. (The average is around 50 percent.) In the first three cohorts (data is not yet available for the fourth) students were mostly between the ages of 22 and 30 or 50 and 59. The majority were African-American. Well over half the graduates were earning less than $20,000 a year.

Orientation takes place in person, at a Keyspot location near a bike-share station, in part because Indego has realized many people need a personal touch when they’re just starting out. Facilitators help students sign up, and they receive a one-month free Indego membership. The rest of the classwork takes place online, with students completing tasks like planning a cycling route on Google Maps or searching YouTube for bicycling videos. In all, classwork takes up about five to 15 hours a week. Throughout the course, group rides get students used to bike laws and etiquette, and facilitators are available for in-person, extra help sessions for computer skills. Upon completion, graduates get another six months of Indego access for free.

Graduation takes place in person too, and according to Kobrin and Setubal, it’s a celebratory affair. “People are really just thrilled,” says Setubal. “Every time we have a graduation, someone cries.”

Setubal says graduates’ ridership rates are on par with the average member, though it’s not always easy to track renewals — how many maintain their Indego membership after the free six months ends — because people might sign up on a month-to-month basis, forgoing a membership in the winter, for example. But, she notes, the most prolific rider in the whole Indego system is a Digital Skills and Bike Thrills graduate. In six months, he’s taken over 500 trips.

That’s Ed Berry, who just got a smartphone for the first time last year. “I’m a Luddite. I’ve never really touched a computer or anything,” he says. He loves to bike, but in the 25 years he’s lived in Philadelphia, he’s had five bikes stolen. When the last one was taken three years ago, he didn’t buy another.

The course fit his needs perfectly: Berry learned to use his new phone, and he tried out the bike-share system, which is virtually theft-proof. It took a while to get used to the bikes, as they’re heavier and less navigable than the bikes he was used to, but Berry nonetheless uses them daily. He’s even visited every one of Indego’s more than 100 stations.

The next cohort starts next week, at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philly.

Santa Monica Park’s Toilets, Grass Are Getting New Water Source

Treatment equipment at Los Amigos Park (Credit: City of Santa Monica)

As part of a citywide goal to become water self-sufficient by 2020, Santa Monica, California, unveiled a new water reuse system in a park this week. The rainwater and other city water runoff that naturally makes its way to Los Amigos Park will now be captured, treated onsite, and reused for irrigation and to flush park toilets. While Santa Monica has long been at the forefront of reusing dry weather runoff — water that flows into the streets from sprinkler overflow, car-washing and uses unrelated to rain — the city hopes this project will pave the way for more distributed water recapture systems.

“We’ve been facing longer and deeper droughts, seeing those things happen over the years, but particularly in response to the latest drought, realized that we can’t forever rely on importing water from the Colorado River and northern California. It’s not sustainable, but it’s also more expensive water,” says Dean Kubani, chief sustainability officer and assistant public works director. “So it really only makes sense to capture these resources that we’ve been overlooking for years — and literally letting run down the drain and into the ocean — and reusing those rather than impacting landscapes far away from us to buy water.”

For over 15 years, the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility has been treating an average of 500,000 gallons a day, which can then be used for irrigation or in buildings equipped to use recycled water. Many of the city’s parks and cemeteries are watered this way. The Los Amigos project is much smaller, predicted to offset about 500,000 gallons of water a year. But it represents a sea change in the permitting and regulation of street runoff reuse projects.

While guidelines had been established for treating stormwater captured from rooftops, Kubani explains that “water running off street is going to be a lot dirtier,” and must be treated differently. Until recently, he continues, “It’s been difficult to permit these types of systems, because there are a lot of public health requirements you have to meet for reusing water, particularly for reuse inside a building. If there’s any likelihood that some person or animal will come in contact with it, you basically have to make it so that it’s almost drinking water safe.”

After years of work with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and state Division of Drinking Water, the city was able to refine those requirements while keeping stringent treatment standards intact. Water captured at Los Amigos Park will be filtered of solids and UV-treated to kill pathogens before being used for irrigation and in toilets. The design takes advantage of an existing storm drain line for capture, and stores water below ground. The only visible component will be the treatment equipment, which will be signed for educational purposes. Los Amigos Park is jointly managed by the city and the Santa Monica Malibu School District.

“Mostly what other municipalities or other agencies do is they’ll capture rainwater from the roof or perhaps take runoff from off-site to use for irrigation, but the whole purpose of treating it for indoor use for flushing, that’s the trailblazing aspect of this project,” says Rick Valte, city engineer.

Los Amigos will be closely monitored to inform future projects, with the city tracking how much water is coming in, the quality of the water coming out, and more. “This is going to ultimately help to design better projects like this, bigger projects like this in other locations,” says Kubani.

All of those water recapture projects are part of a larger goal to meet all of Santa Monica’s water needs locally by 2020. Another initiative, the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project, will aim to catch about 6 million gallons of water in three areas of city, treat it and return it to the groundwater table. Another component of that project will siphon off and treat water from sewer lines. Santa Monica currently sources about 75 percent of its water from groundwater, but with intermittent droughts, that source has not been replenishing itself as quickly as needed to get to 100 percent.

Greater conservation on the part of businesses and individuals will be required too, says Kubani. The city is currently using about 20 percent less water than in 2013, in part due to a strong conservation push during the recent drought. But since Governor Jerry Brown announced the end of the drought emergency earlier this year, usage has been creeping back up. The connections are also more complicated than they might first appear. Higher rates of conservation also meant less dry weather runoff, as people used less water on their lawns and cars.

“Putting all of it together is what gets us down to be able to live within our means,” says Kubani.

Tom Ford, marine biologist and executive director of the Bay Foundation, says projects like the one at Los Amigos Park also benefit ocean life, as fewer pollutants wash into the bay. Sewage discharge, solids from street runoff and other toxins kill off organisms at the bottom of the food chain, which in turn impacts the animals that eat them, all the way up to top predators.

“If we built more of these, we can knock down the pollutant loading to the bay by capturing water and the pollutants it carries before it gets out there into the surface waters,” says Ford.

Indianapolis Green Space Design Features a Highway View

Rendering of the view from the Idle (Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

Indianapolis will soon have an oasis in the unlikeliest of places: a grassy hill between two interstates. The brainchild of local restaurant owner (and Jimmy Buffett’s stage manager) Tom Battista, “The Idle,” as the project has been dubbed, will be a simple, low-cost viewing stand where idlers can watch the traffic pass them by. Battista also hopes it strengthens the connections among four neighborhoods: Fletcher Place, Holy Rosary, Bates-Hendricks, and Fountain Square, which were severed when the interstates were built.

“After the ’60s and ’70s, not only did the interstates wreck our town and go right through the middle of it, the banks all redlined the [surrounding] districts,” says Battista. The areas where roads dead-ended into the highway fared poorly. In recent years, the completion of Indianapolis’ 8-mile Cultural Trail has linked some of these neighborhoods back together, but Battista, who owns a restaurant in Fletcher Place, felt the grassy median between them still represented a missed opportunity.

He first noticed the green space while crossing the interstates on Virginia Avenue to get from his restaurant to the bank in Fountain Square. Though the Cultural Trail runs along Virginia Avenue, “you’re walking across and it’s like a half-mile of concrete bridges, and entries, and cut-throughs, it’s horrible,” says Battista. “It’s a total dividing line between the two neighborhoods.”

But just off to the south was a grassy hill sloping down to the highway, which is below street grade. Battista climbed a guardrail to look around. Nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful had planted trees on the 1-acre plot, and he was surprised to find the space oddly peaceful. The noise of the traffic wasn’t too loud; the skyline was visible in the northwest. He admits it doesn’t sound like a beautiful spot, but swears once he takes people to check it out, they see the appeal.

(Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

“You’re sitting there, and you’re present right there. All the people that are in their cars, the river of cars down below, they’re trying to get somewhere. And they’re trying to get somewhere fast. And when it gets to be rush hour and everything slows to a crawl, you can just feel their anxiety,” he says. “And you’re sitting there saying, god, where are all of these people going. So your blood pressure is going down and theirs is going up.”

Battista says he wasn’t inspired by the large window on the High Line that lets visitors watch cars speed by on 10th Avenue on New York City, but “it did reinforce the idea that people would sit and watch traffic,” he says.

For The Idle, Battista envisioned something a little more secluded: a snaking path leading down from Virginia Avenue to a viewing stand, with repurposed stadium chairs and a fabric awning reclaimed by local group People for Urban Progress. A new entrance to the hill would be cut from the guardrail, right off the Cultural Trail.

(Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

He started to approach stakeholders: Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc., Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Indiana Department of Transportation, the city.

“Although everybody said it’s a great idea, the people from INDOT said well, we’ve never done anything like that,” says Battista. They needed approval from the Federal Highway Administration, which owns the land, and couldn’t get it. After four and a half years of agitating for his vision, Battista got a meeting with FHA officials. They asked for more detailed plans and drawings — they were supplied by landscape architect Jeff Brown and civil engineer Jennifer Roberts — but also tried to put a damper on his hopes.

Then a new INDOT director added support for the project. The city agreed to be the responsible party. They came together with FHA to make a deal: The Idle could be on the space for 10 years, and FHA would retain the right to take it back if and when they want to expand the highway.

Now, the only barrier is funding. The Idle is currently trying to raise $41,000, which will be matched by the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority if met. With 23 days left, the campaign is over halfway there.

The first step of implementation will be to surround the whole site with fencing to keep people off the highways. Benches made from ash, a tree that has fallen victim to disease in Indianapolis lately, will also be positioned at the entrance from the Cultural Trail. So will a cheeky art installation, a nod to the appeal of The Idle as a semisecret spot: A sign at the entrance will read, “Danger! Enter at Your Own Risk!” Another sign, closer to the stadium seating will read, “Even more danger!”

New Orleans Artists Take on Real Estate’s Loaded Terms

Daiquiri Rene Jones, Mariama Eversley, and Michael “Quess?” Moore perform at the first installation of Blights Out’s Living Glossary project. (Credit: Blights Out)

“Auction [awk-shun n], noun

Also called public sale. A publically held sale at which property or goods are sold to the highest bidder
A system where potential buyers place competitive bids on assets and services. The asset or service in question will sell to the party that places the highest bid. In most cases, sellers will pay a listing fee to the auctioneers, regardless of whether the item actually sells for the desired price.
[Image of a slave auction in New Orleans’ ‘luxurious’ St. Louis Hotel]”

Blights Out, Living Glossary project broadside: Auction

On the first of this month, 20 blocks from a “May Day Antifacist Karaoke and Barbecue” just then coalescing around New Orleans’ soon-to-be-removed monument to Jefferson Davis, a group of artists and affordable housing advocates took on what they see as a subtler manifestation of white supremacy: the auction.

On a vacant lot in Treme, beside Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar (which had just that week been served eviction papers), three performers read aloud from a script linking the city’s history of slave auctions to its modern forms of repossessing and auctioning blighted properties. A culmination of years of research by Mariama Eversley and other members of transdisciplinary artist collective Blights Out, the event was the first in a series of investigations into common development terms with loaded histories: auction, blight, community, demolition, gentrification, property.

That last term, and how it has been constituted in American history, laid the foundation for Blights Out’s dissection of auctions as well. The event was held, after all, on a vacant lot that the collective has been struggling to acquire before they’re priced out of a gentrifying neighborhood, in a city and country where black bodies were once considered property to be bought and sold. After performers Michael “Quess?” Moore and Daiquiri Rene Jones defined “auction,” and “citizenship,” Eversley read aloud:

“If the buying and selling of property is a qualification of citizenship, then the auction of real estate is the process by which citizenship and the freedoms and limitations thereof are established, maintained and revoked. Through the dehumanization of human-turned-property, a U.S. citizen with rights and ‘freedoms’ is born. This dehumanization is normalized through the spectacle of the auction.”

In other words, purchasing human property at auction was once a potential path to citizenship for the buyer. Today, property ownership — real estate or otherwise — is no longer a requirement for citizenship. But it remains a commonly touted path to financial security and the elusive American dream, though it is increasingly clear to many that the path is not equally available to all. The auction, argues Blights Out, is a major engine of that inequality, in part because it stems from the slave trade: the one devaluing black bodies as mere commodity; the other, black homes, black neighborhoods, black spaces.

“There is a connection between antebellum slave auctions and their financial relationships, to real estate and also to city planning, which shows you the way white supremacy is mapped in so many ways and so many layers onto urban space, particularly in New Orleans,” says Eversley.

The New Orleans City Planning Commission, she discovered, has roots that can be traced back directly to wealthy slave auctioneers, who turned to real estate after the war. Articles drawing that connection, plus snippets of interviews and oral histories mapping today’s auction process, were woven together into the performance and a broadsheet distributed at the event.

Eversley says her research is far from over, “but the correlation is undeniable. And it’s not surprising, because black people were considered real estate. Subconsciously we know that, whether or not we’re thinking about what that means.”

New Orleans for Sale

In post-Katrina New Orleans, auctions have proliferated as a central tool in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s anti-blight efforts, as a means to “return properties to commerce,” as the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) puts it on its website. NORA holds auctions twice annually; the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office auctions off foreclosed properties once a week; New Orleans has an online system for auctioning off adjudicated properties with unpaid property taxes.

“All these different auctions that are means of trying to inscribe monetary value to a property that has somehow failed,” says Imani Jacqueline Brown, a Blights Out co-founder who grew up in the Upper Treme. “First as shelter because no one is living in it, it’s not helping anyone. And has failed secondarily in its function as a financial instrument. The New Orleans that I know and that I grew up in values property and values neighborhoods not as an investment, not as an asset class for speculation, not as a starter home that you’ll then abandon and move onto something bigger and better and more prefab, but you value it for its ability as a social asset and cultural asset, as a cultural and community anchor.”

New Orleans has between 40,000 and 60,000 blighted properties, while housing advocates estimate the city will need 33,000 affordable housing units by 2025. Blights Out says developers have the upper hand over current residents in the auction and acquisition process.

About four years ago, the collective set out to acquire a piece of property through relational channels — no auctions. “We don’t want to participate in a process that could be potentially predatory. We want to acquire property from people who actually want to sell their property, not people who have gotten stuck somehow,” says Brown.

They canvassed the neighborhood, identifying the owners of vacant houses, writing to them about how they might buy the properties directly.

The goal was to rehab a two-story space into permanently affordable housing, backed by a land trust, on the second floor, and with a community arts and organizing space on the ground level. Eversley was brought on to document the process, with the intention of creating a toolkit others might follow to acquire property themselves.

But their own experience ended up revealing just how convoluted that system is. The first house they looked at burned down. Brown points out how in neighborhoods with few vacants, blighted houses tend to receive a lot of calls to code enforcement for issues as minor as chipping paint, but in neighborhoods like Holly Grove where one in three houses are vacant, major health and safety hazards can go unaddressed.

Their second choice turned out to be problematic too. A housing nonprofit had purchased about 10 houses in an auction after Katrina, with a mandate to turn them into affordable housing within the year. They ran out of funds after working on half and transferred the rest to other nonprofits through the official channels, but gave one away to a New York-based lawyer. Blights Out spent months trying to acquire the property from her, ultimately involving the mayor’s office. But she sold to someone else. At this point, the house has flipped three times, its value rising from $8,000 to nearly $200,000. It still sits vacant.

“This was a house that was earmarked for affordable housing, and it’s slipping through the cracks,” says Brown. “And if it’s happening with this one, it must be happening with dozens of other ones.”

Finally, Blights Out found a third house, right across the street from Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar. Before the whole group could look at the property together, the city demolished it. Four years after starting their search, the collective is now trying to purchase the vacant lot where it once stood, plus another across the street. If the deal goes through, they’ll use the lots to create semipermanent outdoor structures for gathering spaces, perhaps eventually building a house from scratch. It’s not ideal, but they don’t see another option. “The window to get what we wanted is closing,” says Eversley.

Now, to acquire one lot, they’ll have to pay off $29,000 in unpaid taxes — and, if the city doesn’t waive them, blight liens and even a demolition fee. This idea that property is valueless unless it contributes to city coffers directly impacts black homeowners, argues Eversley.

“‘If it can’t be taxed then it’s now not valuable, so we can demolish it,’” she characterizes the city’s position. “But what if there’s a people without wealth, because there’s never been a moment for us to accumulate wealth? That keeps us perpetually valueless and then always subject to removal.”

As much as she thinks people need to be educated about the interlocking systems at play, Eversley sometimes worries that the findings are so grim, they could stoke pessimism. And she and Brown acknowledge the potential for paradox in using art to combat gentrification and displacement. Blights Out began, after all, when founders Brown, Lisa Sigal and Carl Joe Williams were asked to beautify blighted homes for an arts festival. Williams refused, saying he was “not interested in painting a bandage on the open wounds of the community,” according to Brown.

But arts do drive gentrification. Brown relays a quote from Larry Fink, CEO of world’s largest asset management company BlackRock, who says that the two greatest financial assets in the world are contemporary art and apartments in New York, Vancouver and London. Contemporary art, of course, is frequently sold at auction.

But Blights Out is looking to make a different kind of art. “We consider this whole thing to be a piece of art, and we plan on this land being a thorn in the side of development,” says Brown. “How do you keep art from being complicit in gentrification? You make it completely uncommodifiable. You make it completely unpalatable to development. You make it so development won’t even want to associate with it, let alone co-opt it.”

“There’s no win. It’s a small win,” she concedes. “But ultimately the city is going to be gentrified. We’re just trying to stem the bleeding at this point.”

San Antonio Plaza Redesign Navigates Tricky Mix of History, Public Space

A rendering of Alamo Plaza, with proposed glass walls at bottom. The large central open space is currently vehicular Alamo Street. (Courtesy of Texas General Land Office)

That the Alamo Plaza needs a serious facelift is not up for debate.

Located in the center of downtown San Antonio, and one of just three urban World Heritage sites in the United States, it’s the site of the storied 1836 battle for Texan independence. The plaza poses unique challenges for visitor flow, security and integration into the urban fabric. At the same time, decades of anachronistic development have diminished the nearly 300-year-old Franciscan mission’s memorial and historical power.

But a $450 million redesign proposal adopted last week by San Antonio City Council has some up in arms, igniting debate about the nature of a true public design process, and how to balance historic accuracy with urban amenity.

As for the site today, “I think everybody agrees that it’s an embarrassment,” says Robert Rivard, editor-in-chief of The Rivard Report, a local publication that has been closely following the plan and public reaction to it. Today, carnival-style attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not flank the western edge. Though the Alamo is Texas’ number one visitor attraction, it lacks a proper museum.

Removing the former and constructing the latter are fairly uncontroversial aspects of the new Alamo Master Plan, which Philadelphia-based design firm Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) made public last month. The plan’s main thrust is to restore the original footprint of the mission, and in doing so create more robust conversation about the many threads of Spanish, Indigenous and Mexican history that weave through it, beyond just the 1836 battle. New glass panels installed in the ground, for example, would make visible remnants of the original walls.

Other facets of the redesign, which is being funded by the city and state, and private nonprofit Alamo Endowment, have proven more divisive in public meetings and online comments. After PDP unveiled the renderings in April, some took issue with a proposal to move the Cenotaph, a large memorial erected to the Alamo dead more than 100 years after the battle, to a site a few blocks away. Others thought closing South Alamo Street to vehicle traffic in order to recreate the original scope of the plaza would create a headache downtown.

Alamo Street as pedestrian plaza (Courtesy of Texas General Land Office)

Alamo Street today, with Cenotaph at left (Courtesy of Texas General Land Office)

But by far the most controversial of the proposals would erect glass walls around the original boundaries of the mission. A new main southern entrance would be created, where now the plaza is open from all sides. Rivard characterizes this as a move to restrict access. “That’s no longer a public space,” he says.

He’s not alone. Today, despite frustrations with the confusion, incongruity and lack of dignity at the Alamo site, San Antonians are proud of the mixed-use, urban nature of the plaza, and worry that walls — even transparent ones — would discourage those messy, unpredictable uses.

“The designers and others might not love people street preaching, panhandling, protesting, raspa vending, trinket shopping, photo posing, sitting under trees, wearing tank tops, riding bikes etc. (a good day out at Alamo Plaza involves at least these elements in the pursuit of happiness), but this is what active urban public life looks like,” wrote Mark Tirpak, a local urbanist, in a comment on a Rivard Report article about a public meeting on the design that drew 320 attendees.

Rendering of plaza with glass walls at night (Courtesy of Texas General Land Office)

Estimated visibility with proposed glass walls (Courtesy of Texas General Land Office)

George Skarmeas, planning and design director at PDP, says the glass walls’ purpose has been misinterpreted — whether innocently or deliberately, he isn’t sure. The south portal won’t be the only entrance, he says, despite reports to the contrary. And he rejects the idea that stone walls, more in keeping with the original design, would be preferable: Efforts at reconstruction are strongly discouraged at World Heritage sites. Glass walls, he says, allow the design to pay homage to the original footprint without muddying up its historicity, and they would provide space for exhibition.

He also dismisses concerns that the design will reduce overall shade on the plaza, a huge concern in hot and sunny San Antonio, and an important facet in keeping the space desirable for relaxed public use. The plan calls for moving trees to the edges of the plaza in some cases, creating a shadeless expanse that many have balked at in renderings. Overall, he says, the number of trees will actually increase. But if the renderings are any indication, the plan would also create large open spaces that today are partly broken up by islands of shadow.

Should the public nature of the plaza be a consideration? “The answer is yes, we should consider it, but that does not mean we should turn our back entirely to history to create an urban setting,” Skarmeas says. “People are entitled to express themselves, but this is no regular square or urban space in the United States or in any city. It is a place where people lost their lives, a series of significant events took place, and we don’t know today any of these things when we walk through the site.”

He’s not surprised by the blowback. Before he started the redesign, Skarmeas says, “People asked me actually, do you really want to do this project?” It’s a sensitive place for San Antonio; opinions are strong — and nearly immovable. But according to Rivard, a public reaction this loud and this oppositional could have been prevented through better engagement. Though a citizens’ advisory council helped create a set of principles and guidelines for the design process, there was little public input throughout the creation of the actual plan.

Rivard himself hosted a sold-out panel earlier this year in which Skarmeas did not reveal any elements of the design. “You can have 75 public meetings. If you didn’t show any of the elements, that’s not public input,” Rivard says. “As far as I’m concerned, the clock doesn’t start ticking until you show renderings. That’s when people can go, OK, I see what you’re doing.”

But by the time the renderings were released, City Council had only a few weeks to vote on the plan. While redesigning the plaza has been proposed many times before, a rare convergence of city, private and state interests — and dollars — has given this attempt a sense of urgency.

“You made this presentation in early May, with a gun to the public’s head saying City Council’s got to decide right now, or else there won’t be time before the Texas legislature recesses and we need that $75 million they promised us,” says Rivard. Now that the council has voted to adopt it, “a lot of people are asking, does that really mean they’re really open to design changes down the road, or will we be told, ‘hey, it’s too late’?”

Skarmeas says the adopted master plan makes a series of recommendations, with an implementation schedule, but how they are ultimately executed is subject to further discussion.

New Tool to Help Planners Talk About Water Demand

Folsom Lake, a reservoir outside Sacramento (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

No matter how efficient a new development may be, growth always comes at a price, with increased demand for water one of the more tangible costs. In areas already experiencing water scarcity, it’s also potentially one of the biggest challenges to long-term sustainability.

That’s why the Alliance for Water Efficiency, Environmental Law Institute, and River Network recently released a tool to help communities plan for water-neutral growth. The Net Blue Ordinance Toolkit, developed with input from seven geographically diverse regions of the U.S., is designed to meet different water needs when drafting an ordinance to require developers to offset new water demand. Another automated worksheet helps developers calculate exactly what kind and scale of offsets they’d need.

“Those who work in urban design and city planning know that water plays an important role, but they’re frustrated often by the lack of access they have to those in the water and wastewater utilities who should be working with them more directly and aren’t,” says Mary Anne Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE). “There’s very much a firewall between those two entities.”

Offsets could take a number of forms. Dickinson gives the example of a developer building a new 10-home subdivision. If the city has a water-neutral development ordinance, the developer will have an incentive to install the most efficient appliances possible, but the project will still have an impact on local water demand, about 500,000 gallons per year.

To reach neutrality, an ordinance might require the developer to implement conservation measures in other locations. Maybe the firm retrofits all of the plumbing in a commercial office building they also own. Maybe they harvest rainwater at another site, and make it available for irrigation.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, among the most well-known of the 13 U.S. communities with existing water-neutrality ordinances, the city requires that developers pay for the new water rights their project will require. So if a project would add 2 million gallons of water demand per year, the developer would pay the city a fee equivalent to the cost of 2 million gallons of new water rights.

This option is on the table in the Net Blue toolkit, but Dickinson says it’s not preferred. “We’re big fans of direct retrofits that you can actually prove and see that the water has been displaced and is definitely offset,” she says, as opposed to just making new water procurement cost neutral.

With the focus on retrofits and conservation, city and water utilities will identify the biggest drains on the system and the interventions with the highest potential, she says. A developer might then be able to meet their offset requirement by retrofitting a very leaky restaurant, or by paying into a conservation credit bank. The latter, says Dickinson, “is something we haven’t yet seen before, but we think as a national effort this is something we could test out.”

In creating the toolkit, AWE and partners researched the 13 communities that already have ordinances, as well as four communities that once had an ordinance but discontinued it. Unsurprisingly, the majority of cities with existing policies are clustered in California, with one in New Mexico, and two in Massachusetts. In some of these communities, says Dickinson, without an offset ordinance, a building moratorium might have been necessary.

San Luis Obispo, California, adopted an ordinance in 1990 during a severe drought, but discontinued it in 2005 when the city obtained a new water source — and started running out of low-efficiency toilets to replace.

The experience points to two limitations. First, “in a big city with lots of high-flow plumbing it will be years before you run out of these opportunities, but in small towns you could run out right away,” says Dickinson.

And second, “If [communities] are not in a water crisis, they’re not going to be motivated to do it, because they seem to have enough resources to go forward,” she continues.

But Dickinson also says it is not the AWE’s position that every community strive for water neutrality, or that every ordinance be permanent. As an example, she says, “I would never want to suggest that Milwaukee do a water neutral development ordinance. They are so over capacity in their water supply and distribution system that it wouldn’t make any sense.”

“Even though it looks like a great sustainable strategy, I think it would be, for development purposes, a fairly expensive strategy in communities that don’t need it,” she continues. “Where this will be really appealing is where they’re starting to be up against a wall and [developers are] suddenly realizing that if they don’t agree to this sort of development proposal, they may not be able to build at all.”

Places like Southern California, which have been experiencing drought in recent years, but also places like Madison, Wisconsin, which doesn’t tap the Great Lakes for water as Milwaukee does, but relies on groundwater. A water-neutrality ordinance could help them plan for shortages before they happen, or avoid the need to tap into new, pristine sources.

Madison is one of seven communities that worked with the AWE and partners to develop what’s called the “flexible ordinance.” Along with Madison; Acton, Massachusetts; Cobb County, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Bozeman, Montana; and San Francisco — which are potentially interested in adopting an ordinance themselves — they will continue to communicate with AWE over the coming year as they make decisions. Other cities not involved in the test group, including Los Angeles and Santa Monica, have already expressed interest, says Dickinson.

For cities not in a crisis, but still concerned about their water supply, Dickinson points to the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, a utility she sees working hand in hand with a planning department. Most water utilities, she says, plan for water supply based on projected population growth. East Bay instead plans for water based on a full build-out of the municipality’s master plan — linking water demand to land use, not population. Such an approach tackles the core problem Net Blue is supposed to address.

“We came up with the project because we were disturbed by a lack of connection between the planning community that would be working to figure out how a community would be growing into the future, and the water utility services that are supplied to deal with that growth,” Dickinson says.

How to Bring More Artists Into City Planning

Lettered pole markers are part of a mapping of the water system in Milwaukee for a City as Living Laboratory project.

Mary Miss has worked at the intersection of sculpture, public installation and landscape design for decades, and she believes that artists are a resource city agencies aren’t tapping effectively.

Artists can speak to issues of sustainability and equity, she says. They can call attention to often invisible infrastructure and get communities to care. But, she says, “I realized that I couldn’t just go into the city planning office and say, ‘Here’s this great way you can start thinking about artists.’ I needed some examples.”

Now, with evidence under her belt, she’s serving as the first artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Having visualized historic flooding patterns in Boulder, highlighted the streams of Indianapolis, called attention to the architectural guts of New York’s Union Square subway station and more, Miss is currently developing a framework for other artists to work with and within this city agency.

She’s also working to document and codify the approach her nonprofit, City as Living Laboratory (CALL), has taken to encourage and facilitate socially minded projects for the past six years. The key, she says, is to integrate artists early — and get cities to value them.

“I’ve been doing public art all of my career, and really since the ’70s, I’ve felt artists should have a more central role in our cities and addressing issues. ‘Percent for art’ is fine,” she says, referring to popular programs that set aside 1 percent of capital project budgets for public art, “but usually you come in after the fact and late in the game.” In the past 30 years, just 337 percent-for-art projects have been installed in the city, while thousands of construction and infrastructure projects have been undertaken in that same time.

At DDC, Miss is studying how artists might initiate their own projects within the agency’s area of concern. Her mandate is no less than to change the culture of an agency known for its sometimes difficult relationships with architects. Miss has met with DDC staff to hear their ideas on artist-initiated projects, and arranged public events. On Earth Day in April, despite a chilly rain, she facilitated a series of one-hour talks among artists and DDC engineers, landscape architects, and others.

At an NYC DDC tent set up during an open streets summer program, a city engineer and Mary Miss talked with passersby about New York’s infrastructure.

The idea, she says, is to get DDC staff to understand what an asset artists can be. Miss points to a recent New York Times article about how the city’s new bioswales, installed en masse to capture stormwater runoff, are collecting trash and weeds, and annoying residents. “Nobody really thought about how you could make what those are doing apparent to people,” she says. Without seeing how these sites are connected to the larger project of managing stormwater and preventing flooding, she can understand why residents wouldn’t feel compelled to care for them.

By contrast, for an ongoing project in Milwaukee — a city that is aggressively trying to address stormwater and sewage overflows — Miss is trying to make residents aware of their role in the water ecosystem. The focal point of her project is to light the water treatment plant’s stack so that it glows blue most of the time, but turns red the night before it’s forecasted to rain. Through education, residents will understand this as encouragement not to run their dishwashers or washing machines or take baths until the storm has passed.

“You as an individual can become part of the green infrastructure,” says Miss.

A policy inspired by this approach might bring on artists whenever a new public building is under construction, or when a street is being torn up to install a new water main. These projects can be disruptive for locals, but also educational. “How could they come to appreciate what that infrastructure is doing for them?” Miss asks.

When it comes to integrating artists at DDC, Miss offers three potential pathways: Artists could be hired as liaisons between a construction project and local residents, before, during and after construction; they could be brought on as a member of the design team; or they could apply to DDC as fellows. DDC might announce its upcoming projects and invite artists to submit proposals. Or they could work with local community organizations to let them pick appropriate artists and projects.

(From Mary Miss’ proposal to New York City’s Department of Design and Construction)

Money is always a barrier to hiring artists, but Miss says these suggestions could take advantage of existing positions. Many projects already hire community liaisons, for example. The artist-in-residence program could be split into fellowships for three to five people a year.

She just wants to be sure their work is realized. In the ’60s and ’70s, she says, there was an earlier wave of interest in integrating artists into city design teams. Miss herself sat on a charette about redesigning the plaza in front of New Orleans City Hall. “And I became very disillusioned, I have to say,” she recalls. “You come up with these great ideas, and nothing happened.”

Now, Los Angeles’ DOT has its first artist-in-residence. The Canadian city of Calgary has taken an artist-integrated approach to its water system. Miss says these programs provide a level of access that would otherwise be unthinkable for artists. But they usually pay modestly. It’s the classic artist’s dilemma — low pay, but unparalleled experience and exposure.

“We defeat ourselves in a way by agreeing to do that, but on the other hand we’re trying to make it seem possible,” says Miss. And that’s her main goal with CALL: to create examples of what is possible when creative thinkers are asked to take on the city’s problems, from an emergency preparedness kiosk in a Harlem housing project, to turning Broadway into New York’s green corridor.

Next week, City as Living Laboratory will host a workshop in Washington, D.C., about pairing art with sustainable development.

Undercover Monument Removal in New Orleans Sparks Transparency Debate

Workers dismantle the Liberty Place monument, which commemorates whites who tried to topple a post-Civil War government, in the middle of the night last week in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Jefferson Davis is coming down, but I can’t tell you exactly when, and I don’t know who will remove him. His dethroning has been in the works since Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the New Orleans City Council to consider removing four Confederate and white supremacist monuments in 2015. The request came weeks after the racially motivated killings of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, but some had called for their dismantling for decades.

Last week, after a year and a half of court challenges, the first monument was removed in dead of night. Davis is next — Landrieu has said he’ll come down from his spot at Jeff Davis Parkway and Canal Street in the next 30 to 45 days — but the city government won’t provide more detail than that, and won’t be throwing a celebration.

Indeed, a decision some say Landrieu made to bulk up his progressive credentials appears to be backfiring on both sides.

In a bid to protect the identities of contractors and workers, the city is using private funds funneled through a nonprofit entity not subject to the same public bidding process or transparency laws as a public agency. According to the New Orleans Advocate, over $600,000 has been donated to the Foundation for Louisiana for the removal work, and the nonprofit has an agreement with the city to use those donations to work with contractors and pay all removal costs.

Days after that agreement was signed, masked workers took down the first monument, an obelisk honoring a Reconstruction-era uprising by white citizens against the city’s integrated police force. Its plaque explicitly declared white supremacy the law of the land until 1993. The monument was removed at 3 a.m., under protection of snipers, and carted away in trucks with the logos blacked out.

Those who want the monuments to stay argue this secrecy prevents citizens from ensuring the work is being done well, and that it flies in the face of Landrieu’s claim that the removals are about unity. The city says it is a necessary precaution. A company that had been publicly contracted for the job in 2016 received death threats, and around the same time, the owner’s Lamborghini was torched in his driveway. For the past few weeks, pro-Confederacy protesters, many of them from outside New Orleans, have been camped out around the monuments, sporting flags and frequently guns.

Take Em Down NOLA, the people of color-led advocacy group that has been calling for the removal or replacement of hundreds of statues, and street and school names associated with the Confederacy and white supremacy, is questioning the secrecy too.

After years of organizing for this moment, “we definitely envisioned it as a public event,” says Michael “Quess?” Moore, a lead organizer and co-founder of Take Em Down NOLA. Though he supports the removal, he questions Landrieu’s motives as self-serving and hypocritical — political opportunism.

“You clearly don’t want to follow through even on the fullness of what this symbolizes and represents. If it symbolizes and represents, what we want, the complete undoing and healing of white supremacy, and the healing of the wounds that white supremacy inflicted, but you do it at night? And you hide from it? No, you’ve once again given white supremacy a platform and emboldened it and empowered it by doing that,” he says. “We think that to do it in the dark sort of defeats the purpose.”

The argument for worker safety and contractor anonymity doesn’t hold water for Quess? either.

“They said safety, we said bullshit. We said Katrina: You called the National Guard on your own citizens when they were trying to escape a flooded city,” he says. In other words, he’s seen how forceful a city can be with its own citizens; does it truly lack the resources to protect against a few out-of-town neo-Confederates? Columbia, South Carolina, he notes, held a public ceremony when the Confederate flag was lowered and removed from the statehouse in 2015 — without incident, just a few weeks after the Charleston shooting. Quess? says the long delay between the New Orleans City Council voting to remove the statues and the actual removal has allowed the opposition to foment and organize, making an increasingly unsafe situation from an ever-controversial one.

Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based nonprofit that focuses on government accountability and responsible contracting across the U.S., says he’s rarely seen lack of transparency justified as a way to protect workers. The closest comparison he can think of are laws that try to shield police officers from retaliation by protecting their personal information. It’s a common yet troubling practice, he says, for cities to break up contracts in order to keep them below a certain dollar amount to avoid a public bidding process or a council vote. But the New Orleans scenario is new to him, and he sees it as double-edged.

“It certainly raises red flags. There’s clearly a legitimate security issue, the question is how you deal with it. Complete lack of transparency is not a good thing,” he says.

There’s the concern raised by the monuments’ supporters — that the statues could be damaged in deconstruction or transit — and the more standard good government concern that public money is being spent well, though that question is complicated in this case by the use of private funding.

“You have to be able to balance those concerns, which are real and not to be ignored, with the security concerns, and I’m sure there’s a way to do it other than keeping everything secret,” says Cohen. “I’m not saying every contract is a corrupt deal, but there are reasons for things to be transparent: Are we getting what we paid for, are there deals being done that’s benefiting someone more than they should be benefiting, are there favors being given, are the quality of services adequate for what we want for the public?”

In this case, the lack of transparency seems to further goals of people in favor of racial justice, but Cohen can imagine scenarios in which the opposite would be true. Hundreds of architects have publicly declared they wouldn’t build President Donald Trump’s border wall along the country’s southern border. What if they could be offered anonymity? “You don’t have to stretch very far to think that the Trump administration would do that,” says Cohen.

This weekend, Take Em Down NOLA will host its own removal celebration, a “Second Line to Bury White Supremacy” that will march from Congo Square to Lee Circle, where a statue of Robert E. Lee, slated for removal, still stands. Maybe it will be gone by Sunday — Landrieu’s not talking.

The Monumental Task Committee, which opposes the removal, and the Foundation for Louisiana, did not respond to requests for comment.

In Montreal, Healthcare Meets Big Public Art Collection

Rendering of CHUM’s facade facing St. Denis, with amphitheater in copper and etched glass artwork by Mathieu Doyon (Credit: CannonDesign)

The Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal is not only the largest healthcare construction project in North America, but when the 3-million-square-foot super-hospital is complete, it will also house the largest concentration of public art in Montreal since Expo 67, a half century ago.

A total of 13 large-scale artworks have been incorporated into the final CHUM site design, all of them in the building’s interior and exterior public spaces, of which there are many. Azad Chichmanian, of Neuf Architects, which partnered on the project with New York-headquartered CannonDesign, says the goal was a seamless integration of architecture and art that would be soothing to hospital visitors and welcoming to all.

“It’s a public building. It’s an institution serving the public, so we don’t want to turn our back to the public, and we don’t want them to feel they’re not welcome here,” he says. “[CHUM] is the hospital. … It’s the flagship and it’s the central organizing element of the entire healthcare environment of Quebec.”

CHUM is the University of Montreal’s teaching hospital, the result of a merger of Montreal’s three major francophone hospitals in the mid-1990s. Back then, while the merger addressed some of the hospitals’ issues regarding efficiency, cost, and care, infrastructure needs fell by the wayside. The new CHUM site will bring all three hospitals together in a series of new buildings being billed as both an improved medical facility and a revitalization of a neglected stretch of downtown into a new health district.

Thus the art and public spaces serve overlapping roles: They break up what might otherwise be an imposingly large building, and provide a series of gradations from the very public life of Rue Saint Denis to the very private interior of a hospital room.

“People are being born on one end and unfortunately passing away on the other, the full cycle of life and the emotion that goes in between, so for every tool we had we tried to put it to use to make sure it was not only extremely functional and efficient, but as well human, approachable and beautiful,” says Chichmanian. “The scale could be crushing and unwelcoming and it was a challenge to make sure it felt like a permeable building, a welcoming building, and one in which you would not be lost.”

“La traverse des lucioles” by Louise Viger (Credit: CannonDesign)

Along Rue Saint Denis, one of Canada and Montreal’s most famous streets, Neuf and CannonDesign incorporated sections of a historic church and house, a partially indoor, partially outdoor space for contemplation, and a large public courtyard with an amphitheater, in a bid to break up the facade and relate to the low- and midrise buildings across the street.

“The CHUM is a city within the city,” says Yves Louis-Seize, a Montreal artist who served as president of the project’s art committee. Quebec has an ordinance requiring that 1 percent of a public project’s total construction costs be set aside for public art. With an art budget of more than $2 million CAD and a total of 13 large-scale artworks completed, planned or in progress, CHUM is the largest project in the history of the program.

In choosing artworks, Louis-Seize says the committee sought works that were “of our time, and challenging,” and that also met the needs of those visiting or working in a hospital. Artworks needed to be accessible and easy to clean in case of an infection, and also provide space for healing and quiet contemplation.

An artwork by Mathieu Doyon depicts five mountain summits, etched in glass across eight stories of the hospital’s St. Denis facade. Another, by Louise Viger, adorns the atrium that will serve as the main public entrance until phase two of the CHUM is complete. Her artwork, “La traversee des lucioles,” is an ascending series of jagged ledges that will glow a gentle blue.

Other artworks are more seamlessly integrated, and play dual roles. Artists Cynthia Dinan-Mitchell and Yannick Pouliot contributed ornate benches. Nicolas Baier’s installation, “Ligne de vie,” traces the ribbon of public space on the Saint Denis side of the building. It mimics the flashing, peaking line of an electrocardiograph monitor, moving from one end of the public space to the other, providing orientation. In addition to the large central courtyard, the design includes rooftop terraces that open up rooms to air and light, which healthcare professionals increasingly view as vital for healing. Some of those terraces also feature large representations of medicinal plants dating back to Montreal’s founding.

Rendering of interior courtyard with medicinal plant design, and steeple in upper right (Credit: CannonDesign)

A pedestrian bridge connecting two buildings — normally a no-no in Montreal, which relies on underground connections — has been turned into an artwork of its own. Clad in perforated copper, the passerelle appears as a glittering archway when lit at night.

The passerelle (Credit: CannonDesign)

The historic church steeple will also house an artwork, the first sound installation funded through the 1 percent for art program. Louis-Seize says the installation responds to the steeple’s unique acoustics, and will include sensors that allow sounds to change according to how a visitor moves in the space.

Another first for the Quebec art program: One artist has been commissioned to document the construction process in photographs and writing, and will present the findings in book form at the end. It’s among the more ephemeral artworks ever funded through the program, but seems vitally tied to the complexity of CHUM’s evolution. The super-hospital has been over a decade in the making, and Chichmanian says it has become a scapegoat for all the shortcomings Quebecers see in their society. He hopes the end result might revive a faith in large public projects that was so injured by the city’s very expensive 1976 Olympics.

And maybe, also, a faith in hospitals. “It is not unfortunately a pleasant experience here, so this hospital really did have the ambition to give a human side to the giving of care in Quebec, nothing short of wanting to redefine the perception that Quebecers have of hospitals,” he says.

The first phase of the CHUM will be operational in fall 2017, and features 10 artworks. Phase two will contain the remaining three.

Charleston Plans for Connectivity Around a Sea of Asphalt

The site of a former Piggly Wiggly in Charleston, South Carolina, may be acquired by the city to improve traffic conditions and possibly create green space. (Photo by Jen Kinney)

Charleston, South Carolina, may be best known for its dense, charming downtown, located on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, but the majority of the city’s voting base lives in the suburban district of West Ashley, a bridge away. After decades of automobile-centric construction, the city is embarking on a massive public planning process to increase economic opportunity, revitalize the built environment and improve transportation — with a particular focus on connecting West Ashley to the rest of the city.

One opportunity to do all three might come in the form of an abandoned Piggly Wiggly, located on a sharp triangular lot directly across the bridge from North Charleston. A proposal by the lot’s current owners to build a Sunoco there was rejected by the city’s Design Review Board last year, and was unpopular with residents, who said they would prefer a use that improves community cohesion and simplifies the confusing traffic pattern there. Last week, Charleston City Council voted to give Mayor John Tecklenburg — who ran on a platform to revitalize West Ashley — the authority to call eminent domain on the site if the owners are unwilling to sell.

Katie Zimmerman, West Ashley resident and executive director of pedestrian and cycling advocacy organization Charleston Moves, says “the dead pig” is emblematic of both the challenges and promise of the area.

“West Ashley has a lot of empty, underutilized strip malls and shopping centers, and we also have pretty solid opportunities, [like] recent park investments from both the state and the city,” she says. “So we have a really unique opportunity with this revitalization effort to not only get businesses operating back in those shopping centers, but also connecting those shopping centers and job opportunities to all of those green spaces.”

Just down the street from the Piggly Wiggly, in fact, is a park on the original site of the Charles Towne colony. And Northbridge Park was completed in 2014; more green spaces have popped up since.

There’s been talk of turning the Piggly Wiggly into a green space too, though some council members and residents have said they don’t like the idea of a park in the middle of a traffic island. The site is bounded on both sides by high-capacity roads, which merge at the tip of the triangular plot in what’s known as “the suicide merge.” It’s the first major intersection when entering West Ashley from the Northbridge.

“Right now it’s a big vacant building with a huge amount of surface parking, and it’s empty and it’s depressing,” says Zimmerman. With the confusing intersection, “it’s not user-friendly for anyone right now.”

Last week, she attended the first community meeting for Plan West Ashley, a public process to create a master plan for the area and one of Charleston’s largest planning efforts to date. At her table, she says, there was talk of turning the space into either a new grocery or a green space. The overall message, she says: “Whatever it is, I want to be able to walk to it.”

Walking and biking are major components of the West Ashley revitalization conversation, says Jacob Lindsey, Charleston’s director of planning. The mostly sprawling, car-centric district has both a bikeway and a greenway, “which can be great assets to move people around in West Ashley, but both of them need a little work to get them functioning the way that they really need to be,” he says.

Part of that is connecting back to the city core. The greenway currently terminates at the Legare Bridge, the site of a long-running debate about whether the city should replace a lane of car traffic with a dedicated cycle-pedestrian lane. Similarly, there’s no safe way across the Northbridge near the Piggly Wiggly.

Zimmerman puts it a little more harshly. “It is an absolute death wish to walk or bike over the Northbridge,” she says, and a choice few make if they have other transportation options. “It’s terrifying to watch, and it’s shameful that we haven’t addressed this. If we want equitable transportation options, that we are putting people in harm’s way who have no other choices is terrible.”

She acknowledges that the former Piggly Wiggly site might never become a destination in its own right, but it could become part of a larger network of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. If there were a lane over the Northbridge, for example, and the “suicide merge” were redesigned to be safer for non-motorists, then the “dead pig” could become a pearl on a string of revitalized green spaces, or a new neighborhood shopping hub, or heck, even a new grocery store — anything but a sea of asphalt.

“It makes West Ashley into more of a place where you actually want to be,” she says. A large percentage of Charlestonians, including the mayor, live in West Ashley, “but most people are just sort of driving through or driving to something in West Ashley without actually enjoying a community experience that they could be.”

Lindsey says city ownership of the Piggly Wiggly parcel would be crucial to an intersection redesign, as part of the site would need to be carved up to make major changes. A new half-cent sales tax for transportation might make this and other projects, including possibly the long-awaited Legare Bridge redesign, more feasible. Public meetings for Plan West Ashley are continuing through May.

New Orleans Reaffirms It’s Illegal to Throw Things at Cyclists

Biking in New Orleans (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Last week, in an effort to bring city code in line with state law, New Orleans City Council passed a slate of largely procedural ordinances that are nonetheless garnering attention for their commonsense proscriptions.

The new rules clarify that pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks, explicitly forbid motorists from driving in designated bike lanes, require that a person opening a car door in the roadway take “due precaution” not to endanger another road user, and set a 3-foot passing distance between vehicles and bikes. The ordinance most likely to raise eyebrows, though, is one clarifying that it is illegal to “harass, taunt, or maliciously throw objects” at bicyclists.

Dan Favre, executive director of cycling advocacy group Bike Easy, says that while the ordinances are nothing new — most of these laws were already on state books — it’s still important that the council reaffirm what constitutes good behavior.

“Just from biking around New Orleans the past 10-plus years, things have gotten better, but there certainly is a level of harassment. People honk at you, things like that,” he says. He’s got no lack of stories. After he spoke about the new ordinances on television recently, a cameraman told Favre he’d had a soda can thrown at him while biking just the other day. Another friend was smacked on the behind by a passing driver.

“In my mind it’s weird because it’s still just assault in that case, but they needed to really codify the idea that you’re not allowed to taunt or harass cyclists,” says Favre. “It’s crazy that we have to write that into law, but it speaks a bit to the schizophrenic nature of biking here in New Orleans. Because biking here is fantastic – it’s flat … you don’t have to go too far to get where you’re going in most places, the weather is good for it in most cases. It’s a joy. But on the other hand we have high instances of injuries and deaths of people walking and biking, and sometimes there’s these crazy events, people get harassed while biking along.”

New Orleans, of course, isn’t alone. Such harassment is common enough that in her 2016 book, “Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation,” Emilie Bahr dedicated a section to dealing with taunts. She wrote:

I think that one of the best ways to improve driver behavior is to simply ride a bike and encourage others to do so too. This may seem overly simplistic, with a frustratingly incremental payoff, but getting more people biking on the streets will over time make drivers more accustomed to anticipating and looking out for cyclists. It also improves the likelihood that drivers are themselves cyclists, and every cyclist I know who gets into a driver’s seat is much more understanding, aware, and patient than your average motorist.

Favre doesn’t expect the New Orleans ordinances to solve the problem on their own, not even with increased enforcement. “Our police department has been understaffed for years, and levels of traffic citations have just plummeted for the past few years across the board,” he says. “And I don’t think that enforcement is a panacea or necessary even all that helpful in terms of what we’re trying to do.”

He does think they send a signal that the culture is changing. With more people biking, he thinks, peace on the streets will improve, with some nudging. The city has installed over 100 miles of bike lanes in the past 10 years, and a $2.4 billion federal settlement owed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could radically improve street conditions (if President Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t renege on the deal). Social rides take place nearly every night of the week, giving cyclists power in numbers against both bad motorist behavior and potential abuse.

The new ordinances do clarify some cyclist behavior too. They prohibit cyclists from riding more than two abreast on city streets and require that they install lights, reflectors and brakes.

Portland to Tap Wastewater Plant for Fueling City Vehicles

Portland’s Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant (Photo by Eli Duke, via Flickr)

For about a decade, most of the methane generated by decomposing sewage at Portland’s wastewater treatment plant has been captured and used to create both heat and electricity, contributing nearly 40 percent of the plant’s electricity needs.

By the end of 2018, the methane will now be used to create renewable natural gas, a fuel source chemically identical to extracted natural gas, which can be used to power vehicles in its compressed form. City council approved the idea in early April, and the city plans to install a fueling station at the wastewater treatment plant to power city vehicles, and to sell fuel to outside fleets. The Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) estimates it can produce 100,000 to 340,000 decatherms of natural gas per year, enough to fuel 154 garbage trucks, for example. The goal is to convert or replace vehicles currently running on diesel, a major culprit in both air pollution and carbon emissions.

“We’re taking 100 percent of our waste methane, recovering it for use as renewable natural gas, specifically to replace dirty diesel,” says Diane Dulken, public information officer for the BES. “And those three coupled together are really essential, because together they create the largest climate benefit, the largest revenue benefit, and the largest clean air benefit.”

Currently, the plant only utilizes 77 percent of the methane emitted there, either to create electricity or to sell to a nearby manufacturer. The remaining 23 percent is “flared,” or burned off, releasing carbon dioxide. Dulken says the renewable natural gas proposal was inspired by two questions: “How do we solve for that 23 percent?” and “How do we get the highest environmental value for the work we do, and turn our waste treatment plant into a resource recovery operation?”

After implementation, the plant will capture and reuse 100 percent of the methane, which is produced by the bacteria that breaks down solid waste. The methane will be treated and compressed onsite, and then fed into existing natural gas infrastructure through a partnership with the city’s utility, Northwest Natural Gas.

Because renewable natural gas fetches a higher market price than extracted natural gas — thanks largely to state and federal programs designed to encourage domestic fuel production — the plan is to use the majority of the fuel for vehicles, and begin to purchase natural gas for the plant’s electricity generation.

“We’ll be getting a much better revenue diverting it to vehicle use versus using it for electricity,” says Paul Suto, supervising engineer at BES. “People assume since we’re flaring the gas it must be free, but really it’s a commodity now that can be used to generate power, that can be used to generate heat, it can be used to offset natural gas and CNG and other vehicle fuels. It has a face value, so to speak.”

Though the necessary plant prep work won’t be done till end of 2018, the city is aiming to install the natural gas fueling station by the end of this year to encourage city departments to convert or replace vehicles to run on compressed natural gas as soon as possible. Suto says this solves the chicken-or-egg problem of vehicles or fueling infrastructure first.

The city is also working with an outside partner to sell the renewable natural gas to other Portland fleets, like independent waste haulers and airport shuttles. Using credits from those state and federal domestic energy programs, partnering organizations could choose to install their own natural gas fueling stations or use the city’s. Similar to programs that allow electricity customers to purchase solar or wind energy, consumers won’t be directly utilizing the renewable natural gas generated by the plant — it will be fed into the overall natural gas infrastructure, and consumers will pay a special rate for the renewable fuel.

Installing the new conversion technology and fueling station will cost around $9 million, while the city expects to earn $3 million to $10 million per year in revenue selling the fuel. The BES estimates the project will cut 21,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, both in methane that will no longer be released and in diesel that will be replaced. The city has called the effort Portland’s “single largest greenhouse gas reduction project to date.”

Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, called that claim into question in a recent article at Oregon Public Broadcasting, citing the city’s urban growth boundary and other policies as more transformative. BES stands by the statement, saying in terms of city of Portland operations, it’s the project with the single largest climate impact. And while Shandas would like to see further analysis to show definitively whether this investment will give the greatest climate bang for the buck, he says it’s a step in the right direction in terms of waste recapture.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is creating a circular economy,” he says. “Now we’re talking about, how to create circular economies with energy, how do we create circular economies with water, with building materials.”

He also says it’s an ideal time to be talking about reducing diesel emissions in Oregon, as the state decides how to spend $72.9 million garnered in a settlement with Volkswagen over their cheating on emissions tests.

How Should a City Go About Adding a New Museum?

“Bienvenidos a Arizona” mural in Phoenix (Photo by Chris English)

The city of Phoenix is considering opening a new Latino arts and culture center, but what exactly that means, where it might be located, and how it might sustain itself are all up for debate.

A group of city leaders and arts organizations have pushed for years to open a space dedicated to Latinos’ cultural contributions. Now, the city is considering using $1.4 million of bond funding originally approved by voters for the now-defunct Museo Chicano to make it a reality.

First though, a lot of questions: Do residents want a space for exhibition? Or for art-making? Will it only offer cultural resources? Or other services, like help with immigration law, that are relevant to the Latino community? Will it be a new building, or a retrofit of an existing one?

With the help of a consultant and input from three town halls and an online survey, the city is now trying to determine the answers to some of those questions. “When [the city] approached me they said, look this is an exploratory process,” says Evonne Gallardo, the California-based consultant who also serves on the National Board of Latino Arts and Culture. “Even though we are just starting to look at this possibility and everything is still in development, it was important to me that this very broad engagement happen, whatever the outcome might be.”

At the first town hall, held in mid-April and attended by about 100 arts administrators and community members, Gallardo says it was clear that residents want a place to make art, not just to see it.

“The growing trend is that people want to participate and engage in whatever art discipline that they like,” she says. “That’s what we heard at the first town hall. It was less about ‘I want to see this,’ and more, ‘I want to do this.’ We’ve also heard that this center should be multidisciplinary. It should be a flexible space, it should be an expansive space, so to speak, so really having the goal of inclusion in that broadest sense.” Over 41 percent of Phoenix residents identify as Latino, but those surveyed have said they want the space to welcome all.

Laura Wilde, executive director of Xico Arte y Cultura, a Phoenix-based Latino and indigenous arts organization, seconds that goal.

“Having a dedicated center would allow people from other backgrounds and cultures and religions and countries of origin to learn about this rich cultural heritage of the Latino and indigenous people,” Wilde says. The center is likely to overlap somewhat with Xico’s programming, but will serve a wider role, she says. Xico focuses mostly on printmaking and education, while the center may encompass a much broader array of disciplines. Wilde sits on an advisory committee giving input on the effort.

“People definitely want a lot from this center,” she says, reflecting on the first town hall. “The biggest thing I kept hearing over and over is accessibility.” People want bilingual services and afterschool programming for youth. Wilde was excited that, at the town hall, the city offered headphones to Spanish-speaking residents so they could listen to translations of Gallardo’s remarks in real time.

Another town hall was held on April 20; the third and final will be April 22, and in early May residents will be able to weigh in by online survey. After that, Gallardo will prepare three models for how the center might be built.

“Will it be construction from the ground up, will it be a rehabilitation with an existing building, or will it be a partnership with an existing development or developer?” Gallardo asks.

In the first town hall, she heard a strong desire for the center to be located downtown. Wilde says she heard excitement about the possibility of a brand-new space that would be recognizable as a cultural asset outside the city, like the distinctive design of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Arts have begun to drive development on Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row, a downtown arts district named a “Great Place in America” by the American Planning Association in 2015. Now condos and apartments are popping up along Roosevelt. “I think that’s evidence that’s showing the arts are driving economic growth down here,” says Wilde, who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs and has watched the arts scene burgeon in recent years.

She sees a need for the new cultural center, but still has some questions about it: Will it provide additional services relevant to the Latino community, or stick to arts and culture? And how will it work with existing arts groups?

“I would like to know what the city or what the consultant is thinking in terms of proposed partnerships with these Latino arts and culture organizations, like Xico, that already exist. How can we work together? Because I think especially right now, we need to work together,” she says.

How the center would support itself must also be resolved. The $1.4 million bond would be used to launch it, but the goal is for financial independence. Gallardo says she’s exploring multiple options, from a traditional nonprofit model to a more entrepreneurial approach, but the details haven’t been worked out.

Gallardo expects to complete her feasibility study and capital needs review in June.

Bed-Stuy Is Going From Low Ridership to Bike-Share Boom

Kweli Campbell leading a community Citi Bike ride in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn (Photo courtesy of Kweli Campbell)

When Citi Bike rolled out across New York City in 2013, its eastern edge was Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and one where home values are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the United States. On the western side of the neighborhood, where the first wave of the system’s bike-share stations appeared, home values have nearly tripled since 2005.

But the stations didn’t reach the neighborhood’s east and north areas, where five large and several smaller public housing complexes are located. They didn’t extend south to Crown Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood experiencing rising rents and rapid displacement, or southeast to Brownsville or East New York, neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and public housing. So while New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing residents were entitled to discounted memberships from bike-share’s launch in NYC, and while the neighborhood has high rates of diet- and activity-related diseases, and while the city’s DOT had worked with community development organization Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration on choosing sites for the first stations, ridership in Bed-Stuy remained well below the citywide average.

To many in the neighborhood, the bikes, and all the health and transportation benefits they represented, were harbingers of gentrification, and not intended for the long-standing communities of color where they were placed.

Four years later, bike-share is seeing growth in Bed-Stuy. In 2016, the number of Citi Bike rides and memberships increased faster there than in the city as a whole. The number of NYCHA residents with memberships increased faster in Brooklyn than citywide, and faster still in Bed-Stuy. According to a new report by Restoration, a Brooklyn-based community development organization, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Bed-Stuy saw 225 percent more Citi Bike trips in June 2016 than in June 2015.

What changed? Expansions in 2015 and 2016 increased the number of stations and bikes in Bed-Stuy (though not in Crown Heights, or East New York, or Brownsville), especially near the public housing on the northern end. But more than that, Restoration dedicated itself to a three-year mission of changing the culture and conversation about bike-share.

“We knew that [Citi Bike] wasn’t necessarily received widely,” says Tracey Capers, Restoration’s executive vice president for programs. “We knew that it was pretty misunderstood, but what we thought was, wouldn’t it be powerful if we could use bike-share to change the neighborhood conversation and show how it could be a useful tool in supporting residents in achieving their goals.”

Goals like getting to work and school, increasing physical activity and, especially, bridging gaps in a transportation desert. The public housing on Bed-Stuy’s north side has spotty public transportation access, and all of Brooklyn suffers from poor north-to-south connections. A bike can shrink a 45-minute ride on a tangle of subway and bus lines from Sumner Houses in Bed-Stuy to the Prospect Park farmers market into a single, 22-minute ride.

But before Restoration could increase ridership, the organization had to find out why residents hadn’t signed up already. Restoration partnered with Citi Bike operator Motivate and the NYC Departments of Transportation and Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a series of surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one stakeholder conversations.

They found that among 230 surveyed residents, 87 percent had heard of Citi Bike and 74 percent wanted a station near where they lived, but only 18 percent had used it. Though 36 percent had ridden a bike in the past year, 32 percent did not think Citi BIke was “intended for people like me.” When asked what would encourage them to buy an annual pass, 51 percent said they’d want docking stations in better places, 45 percent said they’d need to feel safer biking in the neighborhood, and 42 percent wanted more bike lanes. Thirty-five percent said they’d be more likely to sign up if they saw “other people like me using Citi Bike.”

Capers, herself a Citi Bike convert, says the latter was a barrier for her too. “I realized I personally had this perception that there weren’t a lot of people of color biking in Bed-Stuy and in Brooklyn,” she says. “People are more likely to be swayed or moved when they see themselves reflected in the issue or the project.”

So Restoration launched a series of events and marketing campaigns intended to broadcast the stories of riders of color and connect them with curious community members. These ambassadors led community rides from Bed-Stuy to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, wrote blog posts for Citi Bike’s website and were featured in Restoration’s #FreshMovesBKNY campaign. The ads touted the health benefits of biking, but also the material ones: an unlimited MetroCard costs $121 a month, compared to a Citi Bike membership of $163 a year. But for those eligible for discounted fares, an unlimited subway card is $60 a month — and Citi Bike membership is $60 a year.

Shaquana Boykin signed up for Citi Bike in the summer of 2015, when she learned that the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), where she works, was eligible to purchase discounted memberships for employees. Until a Restoration meeting where she heard that, she hadn’t known about the NYCHA discount either. But she says cost was only a secondary concern.

“I just literally didn’t know what those bikes were in front of my building,” she says, referring to the public housing complex where she lives. “I never went up to the station or anything.”

Shaquana Boykin (Credit: Better BikeShare Partnership)

When she worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, all of her coworkers biked. But Boykin, a Bed-Stuy native, assumed that was the kind of thing people did if they’d grown up elsewhere. “Maybe people who don’t come from the city come to the city and they bike. I didn’t think about biking, I guess. You just do that when you’re young.”

Now, she says, “Oh my gosh, my whole life revolves around the bike-share system.” As the healthy communities program manager at MARP, the busy 26-year-old bikes between seven different sites in Fort Greene, including the Boys and Girls Club and Navy Yard, and uses Citi Bike to get to school and her internship as well. Since 2015, she’s gone down two pant sizes.

Boykin was featured in Restoration’s Citi Bike ads and says she’s stopped constantly by folks who see her riding and want to learn more. She’s happy to advocate; she really loves the service and that she doesn’t need to deal with the hassle of owning a bike of her own. But she wishes there were stations in more of the places she needs to go: Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Coney Island, the vast expanse of southern Brooklyn currently blank on the Citi Bike map.

When people stop her, their biggest concern is usually safety. “Which is kind of a hard thing to grapple with, because how do you make everyone feel safe?” she asks. “And the only conclusion I’ve got is more bike lanes.” Boykin, who feels safest in a bike lane, admits to sometimes riding in the wrong direction if there’s only a bike lane on one side of the street.

“I think people are very much intimidated because of the amount of cars on the road but when they see that you can kind of share the road, then they become a little bit more comfortable,” says Kweli Campbell, a Bed-Stuy resident who led half a dozen community rides last year. A Citi Bike member since 2014, she joined after moving back to New York from New Jersey and realizing that in Brooklyn, a car was more of a hassle than an asset. She had already signed up before the Restoration efforts, and was contacted to serve as an ambassador.

Besides safety concerns, the people on her rides have expressed confusion about the pricing, and reflected the earlier distrust that Restoration is trying to overcome. “I think a lot of people feel like they weren’t involved [in the planning process],” says Campbell.

With her rides, Campbell is trying to show biking can be for everyone. She leads trips to Brooklyn destinations like Williamsburg, and draws an intergenerational crowd. “I’m seeing kids to older people wanting to ride. Even my mother!” she says. “I didn’t even know she knew how to ride a bike.”

The rides also allow Campbell to promote another, underappreciated benefit to biking: the ability to connect Brooklynites with burgeoning opportunities in their borough.

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew a lot of kids who never left their neighborhoods,” she says. “I think that’s one thing that the Citi bikes allow.” On one of her rides, she takes Bed-Stuy residents to the Prospect Park farmers market, for example. By bus, “It would be a whole day trip. It would take forever,” she says. “But on a bike it’s doable.”

Capers says, “For this really to take hold, to really break through for people of color and low-income neighborhoods, it really needs to be normalized. And it will be normalized when it’s in more neighborhoods.” Locations haven’t yet been finalized for the next post-2017 expansion; Restoration is working to advocate for sites now. They’re also expanding their approach to other neighborhoods, like Harlem and the Two Bridges area in lower Manhattan.

Capers thinks the model Restoration is following could bear fruit everywhere. By partnering with many different agencies and organizations, Restoration has been able to vastly expand its impact through mini-grants and joint programs. Some job training programs have signed up to offer a bike-share membership instead of a MetroCard. Woodhull and Interfaith Medical Centers, two major employers in the area, will offer discounted memberships to employees, and are also working with the health department on a program that would prescribe bike memberships to patients in need of more physical activity. Working to improve street conditions is also a priority; Capers hopes that as more community members start to ride, they’ll take up the mantle of bike advocacy as well.

“I’d never desired to be on a bike on New York City streets. Of all the things in my life I wanted to do, that’s not one of them,” she says. But in the last 10 months as a member, she’s made over 125 trips. “I realize my courage is growing every day.”

Bed-Stuy Is Going From Low Ridership to Bike-Share Boom

Kweli Campbell leading a community Citi Bike ride in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn (Photo courtesy of Kweli Campbell)

When Citi Bike rolled out across New York City in 2013, its eastern edge was Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and one where home values are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the United States. On the western side of the neighborhood, where the first wave of the system’s bike-share stations appeared, home values have nearly tripled since 2005.

But the stations didn’t reach the neighborhood’s east and north areas, where five large and several smaller public housing complexes are located. They didn’t extend south to Crown Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood experiencing rising rents and rapid displacement, or southeast to Brownsville or East New York, neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and public housing. So while New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing residents were entitled to discounted memberships from bike-share’s launch in NYC, and while the neighborhood has high rates of diet- and activity-related diseases, and while the city’s DOT had worked with community development organization Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration on choosing sites for the first stations, ridership in Bed-Stuy remained well below the citywide average.

To many in the neighborhood, the bikes, and all the health and transportation benefits they represented, were harbingers of gentrification, and not intended for the long-standing communities of color where they were placed.

Four years later, bike-share is seeing growth in Bed-Stuy. In 2016, the number of Citi Bike rides and memberships increased faster there than in the city as a whole. The number of NYCHA residents with memberships increased faster in Brooklyn than citywide, and faster still in Bed-Stuy. According to a new report by Restoration, a Brooklyn-based community development organization, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Bed-Stuy saw 225 percent more Citi Bike trips in June 2016 than in June 2015.

What changed? Expansions in 2015 and 2016 increased the number of stations and bikes in Bed-Stuy (though not in Crown Heights, or East New York, or Brownsville), especially near the public housing on the northern end. But more than that, Restoration dedicated itself to a three-year mission of changing the culture and conversation about bike-share.

“We knew that [Citi Bike] wasn’t necessarily received widely,” says Tracey Capers, Restoration’s executive vice president for programs. “We knew that it was pretty misunderstood, but what we thought was, wouldn’t it be powerful if we could use bike-share to change the neighborhood conversation and show how it could be a useful tool in supporting residents in achieving their goals.”

Goals like getting to work and school, increasing physical activity and, especially, bridging gaps in a transportation desert. The public housing on Bed-Stuy’s north side has spotty public transportation access, and all of Brooklyn suffers from poor north-to-south connections. A bike can shrink a 45-minute ride on a tangle of subway and bus lines from Sumner Houses in Bed-Stuy to the Prospect Park farmers market into a single, 22-minute ride.

But before Restoration could increase ridership, the organization had to find out why residents hadn’t signed up already. Restoration partnered with Citi Bike operator Motivate and the NYC Departments of Transportation and Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a series of surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one stakeholder conversations.

They found that among 230 surveyed residents, 87 percent had heard of Citi Bike and 74 percent wanted a station near where they lived, but only 18 percent had used it. Though 36 percent had ridden a bike in the past year, 32 percent did not think Citi BIke was “intended for people like me.” When asked what would encourage them to buy an annual pass, 51 percent said they’d want docking stations in better places, 45 percent said they’d need to feel safer biking in the neighborhood, and 42 percent wanted more bike lanes. Thirty-five percent said they’d be more likely to sign up if they saw “other people like me using Citi Bike.”

Capers, herself a Citi Bike convert, says the latter was a barrier for her too. “I realized I personally had this perception that there weren’t a lot of people of color biking in Bed-Stuy and in Brooklyn,” she says. “People are more likely to be swayed or moved when they see themselves reflected in the issue or the project.”

So Restoration launched a series of events and marketing campaigns intended to broadcast the stories of riders of color and connect them with curious community members. These ambassadors led community rides from Bed-Stuy to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, wrote blog posts for Citi Bike’s website and were featured in Restoration’s #FreshMovesBKNY campaign. The ads touted the health benefits of biking, but also the material ones: an unlimited MetroCard costs $121 a month, compared to a Citi Bike membership of $163 a year. But for those eligible for discounted fares, an unlimited subway card is $60 a month — and Citi Bike membership is $60 a year.

Shaquana Boykin signed up for Citi Bike in the summer of 2015, when she learned that the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), where she works, was eligible to purchase discounted memberships for employees. Until a Restoration meeting where she heard that, she hadn’t known about the NYCHA discount either. But she says cost was only a secondary concern.

“I just literally didn’t know what those bikes were in front of my building,” she says, referring to the public housing complex where she lives. “I never went up to the station or anything.”

Shaquana Boykin (Credit: Better BikeShare Partnership)

When she worked at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, all of her coworkers biked. But Boykin, a Bed-Stuy native, assumed that was the kind of thing people did if they’d grown up elsewhere. “Maybe people who don’t come from the city come to the city and they bike. I didn’t think about biking, I guess. You just do that when you’re young.”

Now, she says, “Oh my gosh, my whole life revolves around the bike-share system.” As the healthy communities program manager at MARP, the busy 26-year-old bikes between seven different sites in Fort Greene, including the Boys and Girls Club and Navy Yard, and uses Citi Bike to get to school and her internship as well. Since 2015, she’s gone down two pant sizes.

Boykin was featured in Restoration’s Citi Bike ads and says she’s stopped constantly by folks who see her riding and want to learn more. She’s happy to advocate; she really loves the service and that she doesn’t need to deal with the hassle of owning a bike of her own. But she wishes there were stations in more of the places she needs to go: Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Coney Island, the vast expanse of southern Brooklyn currently blank on the Citi Bike map.

When people stop her, their biggest concern is usually safety. “Which is kind of a hard thing to grapple with, because how do you make everyone feel safe?” she asks. “And the only conclusion I’ve got is more bike lanes.” Boykin, who feels safest in a bike lane, admits to sometimes riding in the wrong direction if there’s only a bike lane on one side of the street.

“I think people are very much intimidated because of the amount of cars on the road but when they see that you can kind of share the road, then they become a little bit more comfortable,” says Kweli Campbell, a Bed-Stuy resident who led half a dozen community rides last year. A Citi Bike member since 2014, she joined after moving back to New York from New Jersey and realizing that in Brooklyn, a car was more of a hassle than an asset. She had already signed up before the Restoration efforts, and was contacted to serve as an ambassador.

Besides safety concerns, the people on her rides have expressed confusion about the pricing, and reflected the earlier distrust that Restoration is trying to overcome. “I think a lot of people feel like they weren’t involved [in the planning process],” says Campbell.

With her rides, Campbell is trying to show biking can be for everyone. She leads trips to Brooklyn destinations like Williamsburg, and draws an intergenerational crowd. “I’m seeing kids to older people wanting to ride. Even my mother!” she says. “I didn’t even know she knew how to ride a bike.”

The rides also allow Campbell to promote another, underappreciated benefit to biking: the ability to connect Brooklynites with burgeoning opportunities in their borough.

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I knew a lot of kids who never left their neighborhoods,” she says. “I think that’s one thing that the Citi bikes allow.” On one of her rides, she takes Bed-Stuy residents to the Prospect Park farmers market, for example. By bus, “It would be a whole day trip. It would take forever,” she says. “But on a bike it’s doable.”

Capers says, “For this really to take hold, to really break through for people of color and low-income neighborhoods, it really needs to be normalized. And it will be normalized when it’s in more neighborhoods.” Locations haven’t yet been finalized for the next post-2017 expansion; Restoration is working to advocate for sites now. They’re also expanding their approach to other neighborhoods, like Harlem and the Two Bridges area in lower Manhattan.

Capers thinks the model Restoration is following could bear fruit everywhere. By partnering with many different agencies and organizations, Restoration has been able to vastly expand its impact through mini-grants and joint programs. Some job training programs have signed up to offer a bike-share membership instead of a MetroCard. Woodhull and Interfaith Medical Centers, two major employers in the area, will offer discounted memberships to employees, and are also working with the health department on a program that would prescribe bike memberships to patients in need of more physical activity. Working to improve street conditions is also a priority; Capers hopes that as more community members start to ride, they’ll take up the mantle of bike advocacy as well.

“I’d never desired to be on a bike on New York City streets. Of all the things in my life I wanted to do, that’s not one of them,” she says. But in the last 10 months as a member, she’s made over 125 trips. “I realize my courage is growing every day.”

Tampa Dreams of Turning Novelty Streetcar Into Transit Solution

(Photo by Daneshjai via Flickr)

With the Tampa Bay region stalled on meaningful public transit investment, the city of Tampa is asking residents whether expanding an existing tourist-centric streetcar might help alleviate their transportation woes.

Currently, the novelty line runs 2.7 miles between the Ybor City and Channel District neighborhoods, a short stretch that doesn’t reach downtown’s highest job concentrations, let alone the airport or the University of Tampa. It doesn’t even begin operation until noon on weekdays, and 11 a.m. on weekends, greatly diminishing its usefulness to commuters.

Now, with $1 million from the Florida DOT, and another $677,390 from the city’s own coffers, Tampa is considering what an expanded streetcar system might look like, and engaging in a series of public feedback sessions. Despite a perception that the streetcar is for tourists, not residents, Christina Barker, special assistant to the mayor, says the public’s support for new transit options is high.

“We’re hearing a lot of different opinions about how the streetcar can be used and where it could be going, but I think the overall theme is there is demand for this kind of transportation option, that people want more options, and they don’t want to need to get in their cars to go everywhere,” she says.

Right now, that’s a Tampa resident’s best option: their own car if they can afford it, the free Downtowner circulator van if they can’t. According to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year, among the 30 largest U.S. metros, the Tampa Bay region ranks near the very bottom for transit coverage and usage, and spends far less on transit than any other major metro area. As a result, most people who can drive do so, leading to worsening congestion as other options like Lyft and Uber also clog the roads and surface parking slowly disappears, replaced by housing.

Barker says congestion and transportation always rank among residents’ and potential businesses’ primary concerns. “But as a city we tend to have to rely heavily on our surrounding county for funding sources and different avenues to build these bigger projects, and they haven’t been panning out,” she says. “So we took a step back and started looking inward to, what is a project that the city can really champion that’s our own?”

The streetcar wouldn’t solve regional transportation issues, then, but it might be able to connect dense Tampa neighborhoods where transit demand is high. At an April 4 meeting, consultant HDR presented six possible corridors to the public. Attendees were able to register their feedback and preferences in real time using software called Mentimeter.

Of the 69 people in attendance, 55 said they primarily commuted by car. Most didn’t live in the downtown core, but about half commuted there for work. Their responses to specific corridors showed a clear preference for a north-south route, specifically one that would connect the downtown to the Marion Transit Center and the Tampa Heights neighborhood. A diagonal corridor slicing through downtown from northeast to southwest, passing through the University of Tampa, was the second most popular option. Three possible east-west corridors received about equal support.

“To build a streetcar system that encompasses more of the city, it would have to be done in phases. So what we’re looking for right now is: What is the logical next step?” says Barker.

Steve Schukraft of HDR says the city will focus on one route for now, while keeping the system flexible to introduce more service in the future. Based on feedback, Tampa and HDR will select two or three possible alignments to present to the Federal Transit Administration for approval.

He also says the proposal is still mode neutral. This could be a traditional streetcar expansion, or the system could use rubber-tire vehicles or even be equipped to handle autonomous vehicles in the future. Whether or not traditional streetcar technology is utilized might depend on how far the system is expected to expand. For 5- to 6-mile downtown connections, a streetcar is just fine. Over longer distances, the system would need more power.

In the public meetings, say Schukraft, while most people are open to the idea, “We are getting some skepticism about extending streetcar partly because of the concerns about current service. … Because of budget constraints, it hasn’t provided a consistent full-day service that’s close enough headways for people to make that a commute choice. So it’s a special purpose service and a special purpose trip now, so people are skeptical of investing more in that because they don’t believe it would address downtown’s transit concerns.”

Barker hopes the public feedback process is changing how people think of the streetcar, but she too acknowledges that the streetcar’s current limits make some residents wary of expansion. Local station News Channel 8 recently took a skeptical look at the economics of it all, noting that no matter what, the streetcar, like most transit systems, won’t pay for itself. But it could do better than it does now, says Barker.

“If it operated during commuting hours, if it connected to more jobs, I think you’d see a much bigger return on investment than we’re seeing right now,” Barker says. “Historically we haven’t necessarily funded operations of the streetcar that would demand the ridership that we’d like to see it have.” She also hopes the feedback sessions are informing the public on how other cities’ streetcar systems work. Unlike in D.C. or Seattle, Tampa’s streetcar does not run in the middle of the roadway but in its own right-of-way. Maintaining that design in an expansion could allow Tampa to avoid the slow speeds and traffic issues that have sometimes accompanied other streetcar projects.

The final public meeting, at which HDR will present results from the first two sessions, will be held on May 2.

Indianapolis Land Trust Specializes in Affordable Housing for Artists

A house being rehabbed in Indianapolis for artist residence (Photo by Kurt Nettleton)

Indianapolis, says Jim Walker, tends to be just a little behind the curve when it comes to urban trends in the U.S. For artists threatened by gentrification, that could be a good thing. Walker is co-founder and CEO of Big Car Collaborative, a nonprofit arts organization that’s embarking on an initiative to preserve affordable housing for artists in the city’s Garfield Park neighborhood. With it, he thinks the neighborhood has a chance to buck a usual gentrification trend — artists move into struggling areas, contribute to beautification and cultural development, and wind up priced out in a couple of years.

Bisected by an interstate and hit hard by the housing crisis, Garfield Park has an abundance of vacancies. But while artists can afford to buy or rent that inexpensive housing now, in a few years, as property values rise and a bus rapid transit line comes to the main drag, they could be pushed out alongside many longtime residents.

To prevent that, Big Car has partnered with the Riley Area Community Development Corporation and the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Project to purchase and rehab 10 vacant houses on Cruft Street, a short stretch that starts at Shelby Street, the main drag, and dead-ends at I-65. Artists are applying now to buy those houses, with a twist: Big Car and partners will retain ownership of 51 percent of the house, artists will purchase the other 49 percent, and the organizations will maintain the homes’ affordability even if surrounding property values increase.

For a house valued at just under $100,000, for example, an artist might take out a loan for $40,000, making mortgage payments of $575 a month. When they want to sell, Big Car and partners will buy them out, and sell the house to another artist at nearly the same price. Even if, in five or 10 years, the house could fetch $150,000 on the market, artists would still pay just $40,000, or a little more.

“We want to make sure that the new residents as well as the existing ones have a long-term opportunity to stay here,” says Walker. “It’s a land trust for programming.”

By that, he means that not only does the model preserve affordable housing — a land trust — but it also increases the cultural capital of the neighborhood. In their application, artists are asked not only about their financial situation, but also how their creative practice, broadly defined, will contribute to their new community. They’ll be required to put in 16 hours a month of civic work of some kind, whether that’s attending public meetings, offering workshops or just talking to their neighbors. They’ll also open their homes or yards for public events a few times a year.

“I think a lot of times, the creative world can get pushed aside, and all they can do is beautify a space, they’re just aesthetically pleasing,” says Danicia Monet, program manager for the Artist and Public Life Residency. “But no, they’re engaged in this and they’re saying, I have something to offer beyond my craft. I can help build the vitality of this neighborhood with my dollar as well, and my sweat equity.” (Monet is also a Next City Vanguard.)

With the first round of applications due this week, Monet says a diverse group of applicants, from Indianapolis and around the world, have expressed interest. And they’re asking good questions. They want to know how they can be engaged, and whether there’s a neighborhood association, she says. “Those are great questions and they showcase to me that people care about where they live and want to be somewhere safe and conducive to their lifestyle, and they have something to contribute.”

Two artists will be chosen for two houses in this first round, with homeowners expected to move in in July. Four more residents could be selected by the end of the year. Big Car is still weighing whether to keep the remaining four homes to rent. Artists will also have access to resources and events at Big Car’s Tube Factory art space, also on Cruft Street, and Listen Hear, a storefront on Shelby Street dedicated to sound art.

In more ways than one, this is no ordinary realty experience. “The odd thing and the kind of unique thing about this is, you’re buying a house, right, but we’re not showing the applicants the houses that are up for sale,” says Monet. The houses are being rehabbed specifically to accommodate certain kinds of artistic practice — a big garage for carpentry work, huge sinks for washing brushes. As the panelists review applications, they’re trying to consider artists’ lifestyles and needs to make a match.

“There’s definitely some trust in this process,” says Monet. “You’re really buying the program and you’re trusting in the program, so it’s kind of like signing up for a fellowship.” If the house they’re matched to doesn’t work for them, artists can pass and be considered for future properties.

Monet acknowledges this is part of the gentrification process, but if done right, it doesn’t need to contribute to displacement. The properties were already vacant, and while the artists can sell and leave any time, they’re encouraged to stay at least seven years.

“[We’re asking] ‘how do you increase the value of a neighborhood,’ because they all have to change at some point,” she says. “It’s a natural form of development that happens in any growing city, but how do you make sure it happens in a healthy way?”

As for current neighbors, Walker says Big Car and Riley Area CDC are working to communicate about the changes to come. The new Red Line bus rapid transit project will be coming up Shelby Street, and Walker knows what that means: “We Buy Houses” signs will start to appear on utility poles, handwritten versions slipped under doors, as property values rise. “If the neighbors know why that’s happening, they might not choose to move,” says Walker. “Now is not a time to leave this neighborhood.”

San Francisco Is Redesigning City Hall Plaza Into a Space for All

United Nations Plaza in San Francisco (Photo by Prayitno via Flickr)

San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood serves as the city’s front porch, both its seat of government and a microcosm for the booms and busts of a city in the throes of an identity crisis. Here is City Hall, the opera house, the main public library, Twitter’s headquarters and a weekly farmer’s market on United Nations Plaza.

Here too, in the stark expanses between imposing buildings, are scores of unhoused people, sleeping on the ground — a former mayor thought removing benches would shoo the homeless away. Here is a thriving drug trade, with 12,000 hypodermic needles removed from the site just last year.

Now a slate of new initiatives may transform UN and Civic Center Plazas, and the spaces between them, this time with inclusivity as a specific goal. The city met with bidders for a redesign project in January, after Mayor Ed Lee’s office published a proposal that acknowledges past administrations’ failure to make the space safer and more enjoyable for all.

“Design alone cannot be expected to solve social problems, but thoughtful design can be a part of the solution,” reads the proposal. Regarding the removal of benches from both plazas in the 1990s and early 2000s, the document acknowledges, “The result of this stripped environment is spaces that are unwelcoming to everyone, and have achieved minimal reduction in illicit or undesirable behaviors.”

While larger transformations are still a few years away, pop-up exhibitions by the Exploratorium aim to enliven the space today, and partnerships with nonprofits are demonstrating how diverse populations might share the space in peace. In UN Plaza, the Exploratorium has installed four large interactive pieces called the Sound Commons. One challenges visitors to walk across a bed of gravel as quietly as possible. Giant chimes and xylophones let anyone make music, or at least noise.

But what’s really unique about the installations are the monitors minding them. Staff from the nonprofit Hunters Point Family have been hired by the city to talk to visitors, guide them through the installations, and keep the area safe and clean. Nearly all of them were formerly incarcerated, serving life sentences, and are now living in a halfway house.

“They have been really an ideal population to staff these areas because of their emotional intelligence that people usually have to develop if you’re on the prison yard for twenty plus years and you’re not sure that you’re getting out,” says Lena Miller, co-executive director of Hunters Point Family. “You really need to know how to deal with all kinds of people.”

The nonprofit got the contract because of their successful work with Public Works’ Pit Stop program, which provides public toilets, sharps containers and dog waste stations around San Francisco. Hunters Point Family staff serve as attendants for those toilets, both keeping the peace and collecting data.

A tremendous amount of data, says Miller: the demographics of those using the facilities, how long they’re in there, how many flushes. Monitors at UN Plaza are also asked to track many data points for the city: which exhibits are being used and which aren’t, the genders and ages of visitors, reports of graffiti or feces, how many hypodermic needles are collected a day.

Right now they’re keeping notes on a paper spreadsheet, but the nonprofit is collaborating with Public Works to make an app. Like a McDonald’s register, says Miller, but instead of pressing buttons for Big Macs and French fries, they’ll tap feces and needles.

That data helps with both quality control and accountability. It can help point out what’s working and what isn’t, and justify spending public money on the project. City staff walk through the space every day on their way to City Hall, says Miller, and they want to know the project is having an impact. Last month, library officials raised concerns about contributing $100,000 to the Civic Center Commons project. Miller says the data should speak for itself.

The Hunters Point Family monitors are clustered around the Exploratorium exhibits. In the rest of the space, team members from the Downtown Streets Team are keeping the space clean and reaching out to the unhoused. Another nonprofit, Downtown Streets Team engages homeless people to volunteer their time on janitorial and hospitality projects in exchange for case management and a stipend toward basic needs like groceries and rent.

The 11-year-old nonprofit only began operating in San Francisco last year, and the Civic Center was its first site. They’d considered the Mission, the Castro and the Tenderloin, neighborhoods more notoriously associated with homelessness in the public imagination, “but it really felt like being in Civic Center/UN Plaza was a good idea for us because there was an extreme need from an unhoused population there, but there was also a need to change the face of homelessness in the community,” says Brandon Davis, project director for the San Francisco team. “Because tech exists there, government exists there, because small business exists there, and then a very large unsheltered population lives there as well.”

Most of the team members are themselves from the Civic Center/UN Plaza community. In addition to picking up debris, they recruit other homeless people to join the team. Davis says the city has done a good job of treating them as stakeholders, including them in conversations around the civic center redesign.

“It’s been truly uplifting for the city to come to our team members and our participants and show them potential plans for the project area and ask them what they think and what their input is on it,” he says. “That’s been very cool for our folks, who often feel they’re on the outskirts of society.”

Both Miller and Davis stress that these staff are uniquely capable of engaging with all users of the space with compassion and understanding. The city has also fixed up streetlights around the plaza and increased foot patrols by the San Francisco Police Department, but it’s no small contribution the homeless and formerly incarcerated staff make, “which is to keep the peace without a gun, or a badge, or authority,” says Miller. Davis suspects other homeless folks in the plaza are wary of wronging streets team staff that they know are in the same position as them.

“One message that has been clear from all project partners is, we’re all a community here, and regardless of tech worker or homeless or whatever, we will just not allow unsafe things to happen in the project area,” he says.

More installations and exhibits are planned for the plazas while the more permanent designs take shape.

Artist Brings Houston History, Light to Unlikely Place

Stephen Korns’ installation, “Houston Oracle in Two Parts” (Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

Beneath an overpass in Houston, one block north of City Hall, one block east of Buffalo Bayou, the Houston oracle invites passersby to muse on the city, past and future.

There, building on his lighting work for the Buffalo Bayou Park, artist Stephen Korns has installed a multisensory video, audio and sculpture work where Bagby Street passes, for one block, beneath the convention center. Whereas Korns’ work typically deals with perception of and access to nature, this installation, titled “The Houston Oracle in Two Parts,” takes a kaleidoscopic view of Houston history, a fractured and mysterious archive Korns hopes will also speak to the future.

“It’s looking for signs about what the city is or can be,” he says. “What is its potential in the present, based on the evidence?”

Here’s the evidence accumulated in the tunnel-like space on Bagby Street: On one side of the roadway is a corrugated metal facade reminiscent of Houston’s industrial buildings; on the other, a facade of reclaimed residential siding, reminiscent of a simple, early house. Each has a window, and in each, a video monitor flickers.

In the faux-industrial building is footage of Earth captured from the International Space Station. In the faux-house is a video of an archivist’s hands as she flips through 100 portraits of Houston families from 1870 to 1970.

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

Audio plays throughout the space: The voices of Houstonians asking questions of themselves and each other, across the decades. “When did you last have your photo taken? Where does your food come from?” they ask.

“It’s an archive about living in the city, what the city has been and what it can be,” says Korns. The space station footage pays homage to Houston’s connection to NASA; the metal siding to the city’s industrial roots; the stage-set atmosphere to the installation’s location in the theater district; the portraits to the city’s changing demographics. On a conceptual level, Korns says the installation — located two blocks north of the Houston Public Library — is about understanding how the city functions as an archive, and about the concept of archive itself.

“Who creates the archive, what gets into it, what histories are represented, who has access to it?” he asks. The questions of Houstonians, playing throughout, pay further homage to the idea of the oracle, the wise intermediary who makes prophecies or answers questions. Korns says, “I want people to pause and look closely at a place, confident there’s something hidden to be found.”

And sure enough, there’s another hidden dimension to the installation. In the early 2000s, Korns designed the lighting and public art master plan for nearby Buffalo Bayou Park. Houston experiences few dramatic seasonal shifts, so Korns and his team wanted to call attention to what does change in nature.

“Our view, looking at lighting and public art as both elements of a sympathetic design scope, was that you had to recognize that the bayou changes, that nature changes, that to catch nature you have to catch it as it changes,” he says.

They hit upon the lunar cycle. For about 5 miles along Buffalo Bayou, special lights change over the weeks from blue to white and back again as the moon waxes and wanes. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which has also embraced unusual venues for art, will gradually expand the lunar lighting about 7 miles downstream to the ship canal as other projects along the bayou take shape. Ultimately up to 15 miles of the lightning may be installed. Korns’ original plan called for incorporating more sites farther off the river, potentially even office buildings.

“We’re essentially talking about turning the bayou into a moon clock, turning the city into a moon clock,” he says.

Now the Bagby Street installation is a moon clock too, its lighting changing between blue and white. The lighting is one element drivers will likely notice from their cars, but the installation is distinctly intended for pedestrians, a way to stoke their curiosity and encourage them to walk through.

(Photos by Nash Baker, courtesy City of Houston)

“[These underpasses] do sometimes work as barriers,” says Debbie McNulty, Houston’s director of cultural affairs. The city, which has grown to encompass the highways that were once its boundaries, has many of them. Often dark, narrow spaces, sometimes filled with trash, these underpasses don’t exactly encourage walking in a city already known for its car culture. McNulty compares the transformation of the Bagby tunnel to Discovery Green, once an asphalt parking lot she would never have walked across into a park that she crosses all the time.

“Making those spaces more functional, multifunctional, and more pleasant is stepping away from car culture,” she says. The Bagby Street underpass was slated for transformation by former Mayor Annise Parker because of its prominent location; McNulty says others could eventually follow.